RIP Smokin' Joe Frazier

I started this post yesterday, when news was that Joe Frazier had entered hospice care for advanced liver cancer, and today he's gone.

At the peak of his professional life Frazier beat The Man, defeating Muhammad Ali at Madison Square Garden over 15 rounds of grueling combat in what was accurately dubbed The Fight of the Century.

I doubt it bothered Frazier that beating Ali didn't make him Ali, who rode the cultural zeitgeist to the absolute pinnacle of achievement, becoming by most contemporary measures the most famous person alive. Not boxer, not athlete, human being.

Frazier was simply a superlative fighter, more comfortable inside the ropes than in the wider world. Inside those ropes, Frazier and Ali composed an opera of devastation, their combined voices mingling in a harmony greater than either reached alone- of their three meetings, two belong on any serious list of the ten greatest fights in the history of the sport. Outside, Ali's verbal dexterity let him literally float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, stabbing at Frazier's pride and humanity without risk of reprisal.

What did bother Frazier, all his life, was this despicable treatment in the lead up to all three of their bouts.  The viciously unfair mockery was passed off at the time as Ali being Ali, doing his thing to sell the fights, but none of their fights needed selling.  Their first bout was the most anticipated heavyweight fight of a decade full of great heavyweight fights, and having witnessed the fury unleashed in that ring any rematch was as close to a sure thing as exists.

Still, Ali slashed and probed, calling Frazier "ugly", a "gorilla", an "Uncle Tom".

Frazier, a historically great fighter in his own right, eventually found his legacy submerged by Ali's overwhelming celebrity in Atlantean fashion, a great ruined city lost in a depthless sea.  Tellingly, the best book I've ever read on Frazier is also about Ali, Ghosts of Manila by Mark Kram, the source of a quote explaining everything about Frazier's attitude toward Ali-

He growled about what he thought to be a lack of exposure, the neglect of the public, how is own greatness was being forgotten and how Ali was being made into a God. "A tin one", he added. "I made him what he is." Including his current state of health? "I made him what he is," Joe said. "Take it any way you want."

Frazier was a hard man, a simple one, and a great warrior.

In a better world the porous, complicated Ali would have accorded him the respect earned in the ring, allowing the harmony of their epic battles to spill through the ropes into the shadow world beyond the glare of the squared circle.

In reality all Joe got was a straight up trade, Ali's physical anguish for his own mental pain, a deal with no winner. The connection that ennobled the two men in the ring ruined them, in different ways, beyond that blood dappled stretch of canvas.

Rest in peace at last, Joe Frazier.

1 comment:

Patrick Connor said...

I wish you'd write about boxing a little more, because you have a really exquisite way with words that just...goes. Nice one, sir.