To say that Joe Frazier was part of my childhood would be a bit of an overstatement. His last meaningful fight took place in 1976, nine years before I was born, but still, like Bradshaw or Staubach, I knew him. Boxing, perhaps even more than baseball, was a sport that I immediately latched onto. For a five year old, it was easy to understand; boxing's rule book is refreshingly short. You knock the other guy out, and you win. If you can't knock the other guy out, then the judges pick whoever performed the best. Simple. My earliest boxing memory is Buster Douglas's shocking upset of Mike Tyson; one of the greatest aspects of sports is that you can precisely date any event. I was not even four and a half years old at the time of the fight, which took place on February 11, 1990. I remember this, and yet I cannot recall a time in my life when I didn't know Joe Frazier.
The previous paragraph was difficult to write, and it required a great deal of editing and rewriting, for reasons that are completely unavoidable when discussing Frazier. This is a tribute to Joe Frazier, and yet it was almost impossible to write without making a reference to Muhammad Ali. For better or worse, Frazier's career will always be defined by his three fights against Ali. Though the second match (a unanimous decision in favor of Ali) is largely forgotten, the first ("The Fight of the Century") and the third ("The Thrilla in Manila") have become part of the boxing pantheon. As undeniably great as those matches were, I think it's a shame that Frazier has become just another part of Ali's legacy. After all, 92% of Frazier's fights were against other people. While I consider Muhammad Ali to be my idol and an unimpeachable legend, it is unfair to reduce his greatest rival to a footnote.
But it is also true that without Ali, Frazier's career likely would have been impressive but ultimately forgettable, with his greatest victories coming against Jimmy Ellis and Jerry Quarry, two solid contenders, no doubt, but not genuine threats. Frazier never fought Sonny Liston. He never fought Ron Lyle, Kenny Norton, or Leon Spinks. In the end, he lost four of his five most famous fights. After his incredible victory over Ali in 1971, he was annihilated by George
Foreman ("Down goes Frazier!" is still one of the most salient parts of Joe's legacy for me). The next three years would result in similar setbacks: the 1974 loss to Ali in the Garden, the TKO loss in the Thrilla in 1975, and yet another knockout loss to Foreman in 1976, in what would prove to be the final fight of his career, save for an abortive comeback bid in 1981 that resulted in a majority draw against journeyman Floyd Cummings. As understandably bitter as Frazier was toward Ali, he had to realize that his career peaked when Ali hit the canvas in round 15 of their 1971 bout. And no matter how much the subsequent losses hurt him, he always had this to fall back on: Ali never knocked him down.
Ali-Frazier I was a defining cultural moment in the United States, a symbolic struggle between races, religions, classes, and generations. Much to Frazier's dismay, and through no fault of his own, he was cast as the representative of White America, of the Establishment, and he became the darling of the elite class. Most painful for him was the knowledge that this was not a narrative that the media came up with on its own, but a storyline invented by Ali himself.
"He's not like me. He's the other type Negro. He's the Uncle Tom!" Ali said on a television interview program, in but one example of the type of rhetoric he used throughout the promotion of the fight.
Of course, Ali knew better. Frazier was raised in poverty that Ali could never imagine. In virtually every way imaginable, Frazier was "more black" than Ali. The only "sin" Frazier had committed was taking financial backing for his career from a group of rich white men. But what Ali also knew is that these words were deeply hurtful to Frazier, who was seemingly unable to take a joke, or didn't know that Ali was just trying to draw heat for the fight, or more likely, some combination of the two. When Frazier floored Ali in the final round, it had nothing to do with white vs. black or Christian vs. Muslim; it was an act of purification. When Frazier threw that left hook, Ali's words about Joe being too ugly, or too slow, or too dumb went out the window. I have still never seen a punch that is comparable in terms of pure aesthetic perfection.
Not that it stopped Ali, who continued his torrent of insults toward Frazier until the end of their careers. Even the phrase "Thrilla in Manila" originated as a jibe at Frazier: "It's gonna be a thrilla, and a chilla, and a killa, when I get the gorilla in Manila." For 46 minutes, the two men brutalized each other, and sadly, inevitably, neither was ever the same. When Frazier's corner stopped the fight after round 14, Ali was too tired to even celebrate. He later claimed, "It was the closest thing to dying that I know of."
Sad, too, is the fact that Joe never truly forgave Ali. Even as Muhammad morphed into a national treasure, Frazier viewed his deteriorating physical condition as karmic retribution, penance for all the evils he had perpetrated. Finally, for the first time, Frazier was the man who had all the words, while Ali's condition had rendered him virtually unable to speak. Obviously, I cannot truly understand what it was like to be on the receiving end, but I wish the two had been able to make amends. Ali harbored no ill will toward Frazier, viewing their press battles as nothing more than promotional stunts. But to Joe it was deadly serious. As recently as five years ago, if you called Joe Frazier's cell phone, you heard this voice mail message:
"Yeah, floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee. I'm the man who done the job. He knows, look and see."
Such words are cruel and difficult to forgive, but I can almost understand them. Frazier lived in Ali's shadow for over 40 years, and he knew, maybe more than anybody else, that he had done as much for Muhammad as Muhammad had done for him. Yes, Ali will always have more cultural significance; he deserves that, and it isn't the result of some kind of anti-Frazier bias. Ali was larger than life, and he stood for ideals that carried far beyond the boundaries of the boxing ring. But people who know boxing will never forget Joe Frazier stalking his prey around the ring, taking unbelievable amounts of punishment, and unleashing the most devastating left hook the world has ever seen. Nobody will ever take that away from him. For a brief moment, on the night of March 8, 1971, Frazier stood over a fallen Ali. He had walked through it all, and at least for a little while, he was the greatest.
I've realized that there's a ton more stuff I could say about Joe Frazier, and so I've neglected an entire section about George Foreman that I had planned to write. I know there have been millions of words written about Ali-Frazier (Ali's name always comes first, and I'm not convinced it's just because of alphabetical order), but after giving it some thought, I realized that the two are such a huge part of one another that it's not even possible to tell one's life story without the other playing a key role. I've seen so many documentaries and read so many stories from Ali's perspective, but I'd love to see something through the eyes of Frazier. The closest I've seen comes from his brief segment in Facing Ali, which was amazing but left me desperately wanting more. I hope that time is kind to Frazier. His body of work is so much shorter than so many of the other greatest fighters (37 fights, compared to Ali's 61 and Foreman's 81), but anybody who's ever actually watched him won't be fooled by his lack of "quality wins." He was the first man to ever beat Muhammad Ali, and I'm not sure that Joe ever really needed another victory after that. He had made his peace.