Tuesday, 8 November 2011


It was Joe Frazier's blessing and curse that he shared center stage in the squared circle with Muhammad Ali, and their rivalry may be the greatest of the sporting 20th century, better than Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, Palmer and Nicklaus, Borg and McEnroe, because it took place in the one setting most revealing of a man's character, courage, and self-awareness.

It helps that Frazier and Ali were perfect complements to each other. Out of the ring Ali was pretty, loud, egotistical—a presentation he'd learned studying pro wrestlers. He often had another agenda, and he played it out perfectly. Joe was rugged but not beautiful, softly spoken, and straight forward in what he said and what he did.

The same applied inside the ring. It's not enough, nor is it true, to say they epitomised the 'boxer versus the puncher' matchup—you want a classic for that watch Kenny Buchanan against Roberto Duran. Rather, it was that their behaviour in the ring echoed perfectly their characters outside it.

Ali's boxing style kept his face from being hurt. He was the quickest heavyweight any of us had ever seen, both with his dancing feet and his ability to pull his head back out of range in a flash. His punches, with their twist on the end, weren't knockout blows, but damaging in their own way.

Smokin' Joe, by contrast, was willing to sacrifice himself to get into punching range, taking a beating in order to give one, and once he got close enough he inflicted hammering drill-press pain, with a left-hook that destroyed right-handed punchers. He was Rocky Marciano, in a lot of ways, and once Eddie Futch taught him to bob and weave coming forward, he was as close as boxing gets to an irresistible force.

The shame of their three meetings is that Ali, having been stripped of the title, didn't get to work his way through the other contenders, and face Frazier with his hand and foot quickness intact. When they met at the Garden for the first time, a few days before my 20th birthday, I listened to the fight on the radio. I was a war-protesting pseudo hippie jock trapped into a love of competitive sports, and Ali of course symbolised the meeting of those two worlds so I was cheering for him. But even in the radio commentary I could tell that Joe was dominating, coming forward, taking the fight to Ali. The beauty of their fights is that Ali proved he had the courage to match Frazier at his own game, enduring inhuman punishment, until in the monumental rubber match, it was Futch who threw in the towel after the fourteenth round.

People remember that Ali won the gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960 (but often forget it was at light-heavy) but not that Joe won the heavyweight gold in Tokyo four years later. His path to the medal wasn't easy, because he lost at the Olympic trials to Buster Mathis, who drove Joe crazy in the amateur ranks. When Joe lost to Mathis at the Olympic trials he complained that the Baby Huey-shaped Mathis pulled his trunks so high ('up to his titties') that he was penalised two points for a low blow that went right into Buster's ample midsection. But Mathis pulled out of the '64 Olympics, and Joe, despite breaking his left thumb in the semifinal, won the heavyweight gold. He would later destroy Mathis when they met as pros.

Frazier's pro career is odd, in that, having come up later than Ali, he never fought Liston or Patterson, he missed Ernie Terrell and Cleveland Williams, and after Ali he somehow never got in the ring with Ken Norton. His best fights, apart from Ali, were probably his first against Oscar Bonavena, who knocked him down twice, the stoppage of George Chuvalo (both those guys made Joe look like Ali), the first win over Jerry Quarry, which was probably Quarry's best fight, and the first over Jimmy Ellis, the Ali sparring partner who won the 'tournament' to replace him as champ, a tournament Joe refused to fight in. Joe Bugner gave him a tough fight losing a 12 round decision, and the one I remember well is Frazier's quick win over Bob Foster, the exceptional light-heavyweight, who was tall and skinny and nearly knocked horizontal in mid-air by a Frazier punch. But here's the rub: Ali had half a dozen fights besides the ones with Frazier that were legendary, or close to it. Frazier really had only the ones with Ali.

He lost twice to Ali, and twice to George Foreman, who was an immovable object if ever boxing produced one. Ali watched Frazier's irresistible force rendered useless and figured out what he'd have to do to beat Foreman, and he knew, having survived three fights with Joe, he could take the punishment. He paid the price down the line, as we all know. Joe saw Ali extending his career for big paydays, but his own comeback lasted only one fight, an awkward draw with Jumbo Cummings, and he retired for good.

Joe's legacy will always be entwined with Ali's, and it's important to remember how badly Ali treated him. Joe refused to participate in the WBA's tournament when Ali was stripped, and he wrote to President Nixon asking that he reinstate Ali. He actually loaned Ali money to keep him going when he wasn't boxing, and making a living speaking on college campuses. He thought they were friends, and he'd stood by his friend.

Then, when the time came for them to be matched, Ali launched into his full pre-fight hype mode, calling Joe an Uncle Tom, a gorilla, dumb, and all the rest, which not only infuriated Frazier, but hurt him. You could see his anger in the first fight, which otherwise he might have approached with some reluctance, in a business-like way. But Ali had made it personal, and both guys took a lot of punishment as a result.

Smokin' Joe was pretty fine as a singer too, with that Philadelphia sound—something that is often overlooked. He wasn't dumb by any means; but there was still a lot of rural Beaufort, South Carolina rather than urban Philly (or Louisville, for that matter) in him. He was funny and quick-witted in interviews, but that side of his personality would always be overshadowed by Ali. As would Joe's entire legacy. There is no shame in that—Ali is undoubtedly the biggest worldwide sports personality ever-- but there is shame if we don't remember just how good, how straight-forward, and how important Joe Frazier was. He was everything heavyweight boxing was supposed to be, and, since the days of Ali and Frazier, has not really been for a long time.

1 comment :

Paul Birchard said...

Excellent tribute to Joe Frazier, Mike - Wish I'd met the man...Your own writing continues to be informative, solid in facts and nimble in making your points. A pleasure to read!