It was sometime in 1966 that Peter Fuller – another good man and great promoter of the manly arts – brought Joe Frazier to town. It was a couple of years before Joe made it big, so nobody knew much about him, and I recall being surprised when Peter introduced him to a bunch of us saying, “Boys, meet the next heavyweight champion of the entire world.”
At the time, the fact that Joe was a young man of considerable promise was well established: He had been the heavyweight titlist at the ’64 Olympic Games. Clearly established, too, was the fact he was also a young man of considerable valor. In the championship bout at the Tokyo Games, he’d fought and won the gold medal bout with a broken thumb.
Moreover, Fuller’s enthusiasm was understandable. He was, as I recall, one of the dozen or so prominent businessmen who had invested in this unfinished, unlettered, and near penniless son of a South Carolina handyman. They called themselves The Cloverlay Group, and financing an obscure lad’s fanciful dreams in such a brutally uncertain business was a novel concept. I’m not sure it has ever been quite duplicated but if it has, I’m absolutely sure there was never a more worthy investment.
To the men who helped give us “Smokin Joe” Frazier, who died the other day of liver cancer at the too young age of 67, we should all say a sincere thank you. If ever a guy who did sports for a living, let alone rose to the top of the nasty dodger of boxing, could ever lay claim to have been special, it was Joe.
But then, of course, none of this was yet clear to us that day in ’66. All we knew was that the guy who then wore the heavyweight crown was only a year older, at the very top of his game, alternately bestriding and dazzling the known world, and promising to hold on to the bloody thing for a lifetime. And in those days, nobody doubted Muhammad Ali.
What we didn’t realize was that Ali was about to meet his match in the United States Government. A year later he would be stripped of his crown after refusing to submit to the military draft and proclaiming his allegiance to Islam. It was never clear which of the two was deemed the greater offense.
Ali’s political troubles allowed Joe to become champ. It’s possible it might not otherwise have happened. Frazier emerged as Ali’s successor from a convoluted elimination process that took three years to complete. He would be the undisputed champ just a few months before the courts, in a resounding rebuff of the government, gave Ali his boxing license back and the whole world immediately proclaimed him the legitimate champ. It was only the first of the low blows Frazier was made to endure while Ali not only did nothing to lessen the sting but also did everything in his power to make it more spiteful and hurtful.
I never really liked Ali – certainly not from that point on – and it had much to do with his rotten treatment of Frazier.
They were comparable in many ways and ordained to endure an oddly symbiotic relationship. If Ali was decidedly the better boxer, he was not the greater warrior, for he didn’t have the pure will and courage Frazier had, nor did anyone in sports. And in one more important detail they were vastly different: In his immense ego and often runaway arrogance, Ali had a capacity for cruelty that the modest, unassuming, and invariably gracious Frazier could never even begin to comprehend.
Ali’s vicious taunting of Frazier, waged over many years, in which he denigrated his rival as “stupid,” and mocked him as “a gorilla” and falsely branded him an “Uncle Tom” was beneath contempt. History properly regards Ali as the more important character. But those who knew both will always regard Frazier as the far better man.
It was remarkable how destiny inextricably bound them, arranging their partnership in two truly epic events – what was probably the greatest single sporting occasion of the 20th century and what was certainly the fiercest fistfight ever waged in a ring by heavyweights.
In the first – March 8, 1971, at old Madison Square Garden – Ali returned from an unjust exile with thunderous acclaim to reclaim his championship. No single sporting event to that moment had ever gotten a bigger buildup. The gate was the greatest and the world-wide television audience the largest, and somehow the fight lived up to the impossible hype. Frazier won, decking the Great One with boxing’s most memorable left hook, and if that offended the trend-setters of the popular culture, it was no less much deserved.
The second was the fabled “Thrilla in Manila” – October 1, 1975 – and while Ali won, he described it as a brush with death itself and would insist in later years that he was never again the same in the ring. The punishment the two visited upon one another that evening in the Philippines was frightening.
In a third, less important, meeting, Ali won a close decision. In all, they fought 41 grueling and unforgiving rounds, splitting them down the middle. One wonders: Are there two other men in the history of any sport who are more deeply and essentially identified with one another?
Ali, with much help from Frazier, orchestrated what history will surely regard as boxing’s Last Hurrah. There were other solid supporting actors in the melodrama, including Kennie Norton, George Foreman, and Larry Holmes. Still later, into the eighties, a cast of brilliant welter- and middleweights, those estimable soul-mates brothers Leonard, Hearns, Duran, Hagler, et al, brought the epoch to its fullness. We didn’t know how good it was until it was over.
The ugliness of the postscript continues. One thinks of that thoroughly discredited bully, Mike Tyson, as having heralded this deplorable era. He wouldn’t have lasted 45 seconds with Frazier – if he’d have dared to climb into the ring with him. Ali, on the other hand, would have carried him at least five or six rounds to humiliate him and make him suffer.
Tyson was a joke. What has followed has been even sorrier. The state of the game today can be measured by the answer to this simple question: “How many can name the current heavyweight champions of the world?” (There being several in these enlightened times.) Here’s a hint. Not one is an American. Boxing is irrelevant. The calls for its abolition would be much greater if the sport were not so obviously doomed by sheer indifference.
All that’s left are stray one-night stands and we now get only a handful a year. Interestingly, the latest came the week of Joe Frazier’s passing and it matched the admirable welterweight champ, Manny Pacquiao, and his gritty nemesis, Juan Manuel Marquez, in their third rather vicious encounter. Supremely vulgar Las Vegas – sadly the only fight-town left – was sky-high for the occasion.
Happily, Pacquiao, who in his other life serves as a Filipino congressman and seems a reasonably enlightened fellow, won the fight. Not sure why I say that. Marquez could very well be the better man. But nowadays, who knows?
But most intriguing is the fact that Pacquiao, thanks mainly to hideous $70 per-home cable fees, picked up $22 million for his rowdy night’s work while his foil, Marquez, got $5 million.
When Ali and Frazier met in 1971 in the reputed “Fight of the Century,” each got $2.5 million. While it was then a record, one suspects they were nonetheless thoroughly hosed in the finest tradition of their intensely corrupt game. No doubt Ali remains annoyed while Frazier went to his grave hardly giving a hoot. They were different, for sure.
Upon the death of “Smokin Joe,” the promoter Bob Arum, who knew the scene if ever a man did, said of him: “He was inspirational and so decent.” And then, interestingly, Arum added: “Joe Frazier was a man of his word.” In the dark and murky world of their choosing, alternately triumphing and surviving, that may be the highest compliment of all.