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JOE FRAZIER: AN APPRECIATION
“He brought death to you.”
Former all-time great light heavyweight champion of the world, Bob Foster, on Joe Frazier.
In the proud, tough, indomitable fighting city of Philadelphia, a statue stands at the top of the Philadelphia Art Museum’s 72-step entrance. It is nine feet tall and made of bronze. It is a picture of the fictional Rocky Balboa, his arms raised in victory. The statue, commissioned by Sylvester Stallone in 1982 for his movie, Rocky III, has been alternately a source of bemusement and downright embarrassment for Philadelphians – and especially Philadelphia fight fans – for twenty-two years now. But sadder even than the atrocious ugliness of the Stallone fabrication, is the fact that at least a generation of young burghers has grown up with the belief that Rocky Balboa was somehow a real person and Philadelphia’s most significant contribution to heavyweight boxing.
In another part of town, along dilapidated North Broad, is an old and decrepit gym. That gym is ravaged by neglect now, and it is empty. This moribund structure was once Joe Frazier’s gym, but there have been no commissions by rich Hollywood power-brokers or by well-connected politicians to restore it to its former glory. Instead, it sits there and rots while “Rocky” – a figment of a struggling screenwriter’s imagination – guards the entrance to one of Philly’s architectural landmarks. The man who once owned this grimy place, like the building itself, has been consigned to the shadows, even though he is one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all-time.
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I first became aware of Joe Frazier not long after I first became aware of Muhammad Ali. I was quite young at the time and I was watching one of Frazier’s fighters on TV. One of the announcers talked about a man in the corner of this now-anonymous fighter who’d been the toughest man Muhammad Ali had ever fought. Given all I had heard about Ali in my young life, this latest revelation made this still unfamiliar fellow (I eventually learned that his name was Joe Frazier) very interesting to me – and I resolved to learn more about him. What I learned was impressive: This man had been the first man to defeat Ali (in 1971); he had been heavyweight champion of the world – in whole or in part – for nearly five successive years; in the golden age of the heavyweight division, he had successfully defended the sports’ most coveted crown nine times; he had gone undefeated over the first seven-and-a-half years of his career; he came within a whisker of winning, arguably, the greatest fight of all-time. The more I learned about Joe Frazier, the more apparent it became that his place in the history of the sport was under-appreciated and, too often, utterly ignored. This article is as much about why that is, as it is an appreciation for the kind of fighter and champion Joe Frazier was.
When Frazier began his professional career in August of 1965, the heavyweight championship of the world was held by some guy named Ali. Muhammad Ali, it soon became apparent, was a very special champion: he was dashingly good-looking; he appeared the very preening symbol of black pride; his defiance and irreverence seemed to mirror the defiance and irreverence of the dirty white kids at college campuses all across America who came to identify with – and, yes – love him. He said provocative things and was a consummate showman in an era when fighters were still primarily boring and bland and knew not a whit about self-promotion. Ali, in a nutshell, was the perfect heavyweight champion for one of the most turbulent decades in American history.
Joe Frazier, on the other hand, was more like your parents were: he claimed no movie stars as friends; he joined no strange cults; he was not tall and beautiful; he was certainly not loud and bombastic. All Frazier ever resolved to do was to become a great heavyweight and then a great heavyweight champion. He was out of place in the frenetic Sixties. And the baby boomers, who were coming in swarms to take over the sporting media, made sure he never forgot it.
When Ali was exiled from boxing in 1967, Frazier became, indisputably, the best heavyweight fighter on the planet. He cut a destructive swath through the heavyweight division, conquering – sometimes brutally – the best fighters the division then had to offer: Bonavena, Machen, Jones, Quarry, Chuvalo. He became feared; his left hook – the left hook that nearly blinded ironman George Chuvalo and effectively ended the careers of Machen and Jones – became legendary. By the time Ali finally got back into the fight game in late 1970 after three-and-a-half years away, Frazier was firmly entrenched as the division’s kingpin. But to the boomers, he was still an inarticulate interloper who held Ali’s belt.
On March 8, 1971, Muhammad Ali finally got his shot at the man holding “his” championship. In the years that have followed, so much has been written about Ali-Frazier I that it seems almost redundant to write about it again here. Nonetheless, in the long history of professional prize-fighting, this night – and this fight – has a seminal place in boxing lore. As it turned out, it was a night that belonged to Joe Frazier; for three minutes of every round for fifteen brutal and unforgettable rounds, he fought with all of the desperate energy of a frightened animal trying to escape a strangling thicket.
Ali, his body and his skills not quite what they had once been, fought magnificently as well; indeed, there were many times when it seemed that Frazier could not possibly endure much longer the head-whipping he was receiving. But when the night was over, Frazier – courtesy of a classic knockdown in the fifteenth – was still the heavyweight champion of the whole wide world while Ali was still left to wander in the boxing wilderness. From this point onwards, the baby boomer press corps – which had long-before adopted Ali as their “guy” – never let Frazier forget that he had committed the unpardonable sin of whipping their hitherto unblemished symbol of Sixties defiance. When Muhammad got nasty both before and after Ali-Frazier I, the press corps indulged him; sometimes – as in the case of the slithery Bryant Gumbel – they even not-so-subtly encouraged him in his rants. Frazier, lacking Ali’s political power base and not nearly as articulate as his tormentor, was more or less forced to suffer in silence.
Fast forward four-and-a-half years. It is the fall of 1975. America is out of Vietnam and Nixon is out of the White House. Joe Frazier has lost his heavyweight title to George Foreman and Ali has regained it at George’s expense in Africa. By now, the relationship between the two men is truly poisonous. Ali is given to grotesque pantomimes of Frazier in his public workouts in which he portrays Frazier as an imbecilic gorilla desperately seeking lost bananas. On international television, he calls Frazier filthy and stupid and smelly. As if that isn’t bad enough, he makes fun of Frazier’s speech and runs around Manila with a rubber gorilla that he pulls out at a moment’s notice to the bemusement – and sometimes delight – of media onlookers. Once again, the boomers in the press rows give Ali a free ride while Frazier, who has determinedly worked his way back into the title picture, is dismissed as an “easy mark-slash-punching bag” that Ali will quickly dispose of. When the fight arrives, Muhammad is a solid 2-to-1 betting favorite.
And so we have Manila. It is not long -it takes about three rounds – before Ali discovers that his own ego has led him into a deadly trap; by the sixth round, he is trapped in a primordial battle for survival with a man who hates him and who has come to beat him to death, if possible. For fourteen rounds – forty-two minutes – the two men fight beyond any comprehensible limit of human endurance. At one point around the tenth, Frazier appears to have the fight won; then Ali, reaching deep into unfathomable reserves, slowly but irreversibly turns the course of history. It is finally over after fourteen rounds when Eddie Futch decides that a bloodied, battered but still willing Frazier has had enough. After being sent straight to hell by Frazier for the previous several rounds, Muhammad Ali has rallied to win the greatest heavyweight tilt in history.
All of this takes us to today.
Nearly thirty years after their last and most brutally draining bout, it is clear that many in the sports media still favor Ali over Frazier. As much as I love Ali, as much as I appreciate how much he has given the sport, the bias is far too pronounced and it is troubling. Too often, it seems, the boomers love Muhammad for all of the wrong reasons; namely, they love him because his youthful sensibilities and excesses mirrored their own wanton sensibilities and excesses “back in the day.”
Frazier, who never publicly rebuked anyone’s political leanings during his time as champion, is only mentioned in news dispatches when he is taking an ill-considered swipe at his latest girlfriend or pursuing ill-advised legal suits over bad real-estate investments. (This is in marked contrast to the worshipful treatment Ali receives from the Thomas Hausers and David Remmicks of the world). Moreover, while Ali is – quite rightly, I might add – acclaimed as the Greatest Heavyweight Champion of All Time, Frazier is frequently ranked below the likes of Rocky Marciano and Jack Dempsey by fight historians; for my money, these are two men who wouldn’t get out of the dressing room against a prime Smoking Joe.
So what is my resolution? What it is that I would like to see done? Well, quite frankly, I would like to see a little more respect for Frazier, for one thing. Over the last couple of years, he and Ali have patched up their differences – at least to the point where they no longer loudly exchange insults whenever the opportunity presents itself. Given that the combatants themselves have finally decided to lay down arms, the often self-congratulatory media needs to take that next step itself and stop punishing Frazier for defeating Ali that long-ago night in MSG. In addition, I would like to see boxing historians acknowledge Frazier’s important place in boxing history. To think that Jack Dempsey – who never beat anyone of historical consequence during his overblown reign as heavyweight champion – is consistently ranked in the top five ever while Frazier is habitually ranked behind him and – heaven forbid! – Mike Tyson, is absurd; Frazier deserves more regard than that.
If these two things are finally done (and I remain hopeful) then you will never see me climb back up onto my soapbox in this manner again (unless it’s to take a dig at Roy Jones, Jr.).