Smokin’ Joe

Posted: November 9, 2011 by Dinner Party Animal in boxing, Joe Frazier, RIP

Is it strange to consider one’s self a boxing fan, even if you could count on one hand the number of fights I’ve actually seen in real time? We’d certainly laugh at anyone who made a similar claim about baseball, or football, or even a slightly more obscure sport like hockey.  Such, however, is the fate of a 27-year-old boxing fan in 2011, when the only compelling fights happen at the lower weight classes, and even there the one fight everyone wants still hasn’t happened.  It’s nothing like the glory days, when the best athletes in the world boxed, and the Heavyweight Champion of the World was a title that deserved every one of those capital letters.

My boxing fandom is borne more out of my love of literature, because boxers make for far better stories than any other athlete.  The precise blend of poverty, desire, strength, and toughness means that every boxer is a tragic hero, a modern-day Achilles, slighted by the gods, or by Fate, and yet able to overcome the immense odds in order to achieve their one brief moment of glory, even as they inevitably meet their early demise.

The news of Joe Frazier’s death sparked a strange reaction in me when I first read about it yesterday.  Frazier was in many ways the epitome of the boxer-as-tragic-figure trope: born to almost unbelievably poor sharecroppers in South Carolina, he started boxing as a way to lose weight as a child and developed quite possibly the best left hook in boxing history by punching slabs of meat in Philadelphia decades before Sly Stallone made such things popular.

The origin story is interesting, but it’s of course his incredibly complex relationship with Muhammad Ali that raises the tragedy to Greek epic level.  If Ali was the visionary, the man destined to transcend the world of sport and become a global icon, then Frazier was just as destined to remain, at heart, a boxer.  Not gifted with Ali’s knack for self-promotion, he was doomed to forever be the straight man, the punchline, the rube.

It’s not often remembered that Frazier stood up for Ali during his fight against the US military.  Frazier referred to Ali as the true heavyweight champion (even if he did call him Cassius Clay), and even lent Ali’s family money during that time.  To then have Ali turn around and attack him remorselessly in the media, calling him an Uncle Tom, a gorilla, and the White Man’s champ, that was an indignity that he neither expected nor deserved.  Remember, Ali was the one from a (relatively) well-off black family, the lighter-skinned man, and the one with the movie-star good looks, while Frazier came from desperate poverty and had a face that, well, no one much minded if it got punched once or twice.  Denied much of a chance at schooling, it was only in the ring that he had a chance to express himself.

It was within that ring that Frazier showed the true measure of himself.  Short and light for a heavyweight, he was perhaps the most indomitable fighter of all time.  Legendary for his constant forward movement, Frazier remained unafraid of whomever else was in the ring against him.  It’s the trait that showed itself in both his single greatest moment, dealing Ali his first professional loss in a unanimous decision in the “Fight of the Century,” and then losing that heavyweight crown a year later to George Foreman while being knocked down six times in the first two rounds (“Down goes Frazier, down goes Frazier”).  Yet even in that fight against Foreman (quite possibly the hardest punching heavyweight of all time), Frazier got up off the mat all six times.

Let’s talk for a moment more about that first fight against Ali.  It remains the sporting event I’d most want to attend if I had a time machine, in part because of the sheer spectacle of it all.  Here you had two undefeated heavyweights meeting in Madison Square Garden for the Heavyweight Championship of the World, back when that was the most meaningful title in sports.  You had Ali, who had come back from prison as perhaps the most famous man in the world, a man who in the early part of his career had redefined what a heavyweight could be, but was something of a mystery since he’d had just a handful of fights in the buildup.  You then had Frazier, who seemed almost impossible to knock down, perhaps the strongest-willed man to ever step into a ring, at the absolute peak of his career.

Indeed, Frazier won in a unanimous decision, which remains one of the greatest wins in boxing history.  He remains, at least in my opinion, the only fighter to beat Ali during Ali’s prime.  Sadly for Frazier, instead of being the beginning of a long reign as the Heavyweight Champion of the World, it was the pinnacle of a career that would largely come to be defined by his heroic performances in defeat, his transformation from Achilles to Hector as it were.

Sadly, life isn’t just lived in the boxing ring, where things appear clear-cut.  Frazier’s deep animosity towards Ali, justified as it may be, remains the defining feature of his post-boxing life.  Forever cast as Ali’s nemesis, he may have been able to go toe-to-toe with the Greatest of All Time in the ring, but outside it he was ill-equipped to match words or wits with him.  Every so often, quotes would emerge about Frazier being glad about, or even gloating over, Ali’s illness.  It was as if by outliving Ali, he could somehow turn the tides on their rivalry.  The sad irony, of course, is that Ali has won even that fight between the two.

Still, Frazier remains a link to the glory days of the heavyweight division, a time when the true test of a man’s mettle involved trunks, gloves, and fifteen rounds.  Though his reign atop the sports world was short-lived, few men have reached the heights that Frazier himself scaled, and there have been few braver, tougher men in the history of sport.

After the 14th round of the Thrilla in Manila, Frazier’s eyes were virtually swollen shut.  As he tried to rise to answer the bell for the 15th and final round, his trainer Eddie Futch placed a hand on Frazier’s shoulder and said “It’s all over. No one will ever forget what you did here today.” No, we won’t.

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