Joe Frazier is What He Was

Frazier died straining against Ali’s saintly legacy, straining against his own inability to match Ali verb for verb, straining against the circumstances that landed him in poverty.
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We The Family of the 1964 Olympic Boxing Heavyweight Gold Medalist, Former Heavyweight Boxing Champion and International Boxing Hall of Fame Member Smokin’ Joe Frazier, regret to inform you of his passing. He transitioned from this life as “One of God’s Men,” on the eve of November 7, 2011 at his home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We thank you for your prayers for our Father and vast outpouring of love and support.

Respectfully, we request time to grieve privately as a family. Our father’s home going celebration will be announced as soon as possible. Thank you for your understanding. 

The statement above, from Joe Frazier’s family, announced his death on Monday. 

These two short paragraphs also make a decent metaphor for Frazier’s life and legacy. Note the list of his achievements placed before even his name. Note the straining at formality in phrases like “we the family” and “eve of November 7, 2011.” 

In the public consciousness, Frazier was always straining at the right words—any words. Not because he was an especially quiet or ineloquent man, but because he wasn’t Ali, for whom speech was performance. Watch the pre-fight interviews before their first bout at Madison Square Garden and you’ll see the difference: Ali with his face right up in the camera lens, Frazier on his toes, throwing punches and generally acting like a reporter isn’t standing next to him. For Frazier, the cameras were just part of the job and speaking was simply a way of communicating. 

***

My paternal grandfather owned a bike shop in Hollywood in the 1970s. One time, Muhammad Ali walked in with his entourage. My grandfather greeted Ali enthusiastically. “Joe Louis, what an honor to have you in my store!” 

What really makes this funny is that my grandfather, a Holocaust survivor who came to the United States after the war and still spoke with an accent, actually loved boxing. He knew the difference between Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali. He just got excited and mixed them up. By the time Ali came into the bike shop, Louis was greeting vacationers at Caesar’s Palace. 

When my dad was growing up in Hollywood in the ‘50s and ‘60s, my grandparents—my grandmother is a survivor too, and back then she was arguably the bigger fight fan—sometimes had friends over to their apartment to watch the Friday Night fights. They were a bunch of recent immigrants, mostly Jews from Poland, working blue-collar jobs. My grandfather was a machinist then, my grandmother a seamstress. Their friends were carpenters, plumbers, and the like. 

By the time of my childhood, boxing was no longer a premier weekly event. Still, when there were big fights on pay-per-view, we would have everybody over: grandparents, uncles, family friends. The adults would talk about older, better fighters. I heard about Louis and Rocky Marciano. I heard about the great fights between Frazier and Ali. 

*** 

I’m no great fight fan, but I’ve always held a special esteem for Joe Frazier. Frazier and Ken Norton were my grandmother’s favorite boxers (she thought Norton was handsome). My dad loved Frazier as well. When I was a kid and into reading sports biographies, he came home with a copy of Smokin’ Joe: The Autobiography of a Heavyweight. 

I read it over and over again. First because I loved reading, second because I loved boxing, and third because Smokin’ Joe challenged the way I thought about sports, heroes, and even American history. I haven’t picked the book up for years, but I can still tell you exactly where it’s sitting on the bookshelf in my childhood bedroom a thousand miles away. The book suffered a great deal of abuse at my hands and most of the pages have come apart from their bindings. 

Frazier’s voice in Smokin’ Joe is tired and bitter—completely different from the voice in my other favorite sports autobiography, Mickey Mantle’s My Favorite Summer 1956. Mantle wrote about sharing sandwiches with Elston Howard on the team bus outside segregated restaurants. Frazier wrote about boarding a bus to New York City at fifteen years old after a conflict with his racist farm boss in South Carolina. I might not have known poverty, or what it was like to be a sharecropper, but I had heard enough stories about my own family history to know whose depiction of the South I believed. The beloved white ballplayer taking pity on his black teammate didn’t carry as much weight as the poor black teenage farmer watching his friend get beat up by the boss.   

When Frazier wrote about what it felt like to be called an Uncle Tom and a gorilla by Ali, he forced me to confront racism in a way far more complex than the Whig history taught in school. Frazier’s writing about what it felt like to be called those things by a man he thought was his friend introduced me to the fact that athletes, even the greatest athletes, can be vulnerable. 

Frazier was writing the stuff that fight fans already know: how he petitioned Richard Nixon to let Ali back in the ring after he was banned from boxing; how he boycotted the tournament held to crown a new champion after Ali’s WBA belt was stripped; how he felt robbed by the judges after the second fight with Ali. Damn right he was bitter. 

Frazier was a new kind of sports hero to me, a man who had dominated his field and was respected across the sporting universe but was plainly unhappy. Here was a man who talked openly about how unjust the world could be, about how painful words could be, about how despite everything he had achieved in boxing, he would never be fully content with his legacy. 

The book also forced me to confront at a pretty early age that there were at least two sides to every person, every rivalry, every story. Until I read Smokin’ Joe, I knew Ali as infallible. By the 1990s, the harsh edges of his radicalism had given way to a sort of benign, statesmanlike nobility—in part because he could no longer speak. He was the man who lit Olympic flame in such a way that even his illness was awe-inspiring. He was the hero. He was the triumph of America and the human spirit. The Greatest. But could The Greatest also be a bully? Could he also betray his friend? 

When I asked my dad about Frazier yesterday, he talked about watching those great fights with his parents: not just the Ali fights, but the Jerry Quarry fights (the first one is as explosive as any heavyweight bout I’ve ever seen), the George Foreman fights and more. 

“I liked Frazier because he always seemed like an underdog,” my dad said. “Because he came out and whooped ass.” 

He also liked Frazier because he believed that Frazier was wronged by Ali; because you don’t do that to somebody who stands behind you. This isn’t to say that my dad didn’t appreciate Ali’s greatness in the ring, his stand against the Vietnam War, or his evolution as a person—it’s just that for him, for me, and for my grandparents, Frazier made more sense. 

*** 

Maybe Frazier made more sense to my grandparents because he seemed more occupied by the hardships of daily life than by the travails of fame. Maybe it’s easier for an immigrant to identify with a person whose toughness is a defining feature. Maybe they liked Frazier because he spoke merely to get the point across as opposed to Ali who wielded English as a weapon. 

But affinity, unlike boxing, is not a zero-sum game. There is no either/or dichotomy at play. In fact, employing that dichotomy does Frazier (and Ali, for that matter) the ultimate disservice. It reduces Frazier’s entire life to the description that leads so many of his obituaries, “Ali’s Greatest Rival.” No person should be remembered solely in the context of someone else. Notice that nowhere in the statement from Frazier’s family does the name Muhammad Ali appear. 

One of the tragedies of Joe Frazier is that for more than thirty years he did everything he could to uncouple himself from Ali. But the harder he tried, the closer he and Ali became intertwined. Frazier was unable to see that the acrid words he wrote about Ali, the unkind interviews he gave, the cruel jokes at the expense of Ali’s Parkinson’s did nothing to distance him—in fact, they had the opposite effect. They only further cemented his orbit of Ali. 

Frazier feared that people didn’t see him for the man he believed he was. He died fighting to remedy that situation—straining against Ali’s saintly legacy, straining against his own inability to match Ali verb for verb, straining against the circumstances that landed him in poverty. 

The world does not owe it to Joe Frazier to remember him as a righteous victim. The right thing would be to see him as he saw himself in his more honest moments—“I am what I am,” he told a New York Timesreporter in 2006—and to call him what his family does: the 1964 Olympic Boxing Heavyweight Gold Medalist, Former Heavyweight Boxing Champion and International Boxing Hall of Fame Member Smokin’ Joe Frazier.


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