"Sugar Ray" Leonard vs. "Hitman" Hearns. Jack Dempsey vs. Luis Angel Firpo. Boxing enthusiasts and sports historians will recognize these billings as two of the best boxing matches to ever occur, legendary fights that still capture the imagination (in the case of Dempsey/Firpo) 91 years later. Yet, even the most casual fan of prizefighting or even sports in general will likely recognize this card: Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier III, the "Thrilla in Manila".
One night in October 1975, arguably the two greatest boxers of all time collided in a spectacular showdown that defined the term "knockdown, drag-out brawl." The recorded temperature in Araneta Coliseum was 107 degrees, and the two legends in the ring amplified that heat with the intensity of their duel. So similar, so driven to win, so unyielding that the fight lasted 14 rounds before Frazier's manager threw in the towel, and Ali was crowned the heavyweight champion, battered, bruised, and exhausted.
If you read numberFire regularly, you know that some of the analysis we do on matchups is based on predictors: historical games that match closely to what we're about to see in any given game, based on many factors like Net Expected Points (NEP). In the case of this week's Divisional Round showdown between the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers, my strongest predictor is no historical football game. Rather, it's that legendary fight between Ali and Frazier. There will be more padding and it'll be much colder in a January in Charlotte, but I can still imagine referee Ed Hochuli's voice booming at the start of the game:
"In the blue corner, standing 6' 5", weighing 245 pounds, former Heisman winner, former NCAA champion, and his own goal-line back, 'SuperCam' Newton!"
"Aaaand, in the red corner, standing 6' 4", weighing 230 pounds, hailing from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and tattooed like the Sistine Chapel itself, Colin 'Jafar' Kaepernick!"
Like Ali and Frazier, these two teams are nearly identically matched, strength for strength, weakness for weakness, and in their quarterbacks' cases, even pound for pound and inch for inch. I won't be surprised if they go the distance too, with a final knockout blow right before the end. This is a contest I could see headlining the conference title game, and we're lucky enough to get ringside seats this Sunday afternoon. Get ready for a four-quarter heavyweight match between evenly-matched and equally-dangerous foes.
There's the bell.