In typical 21st Century American fashion, the sad news of Joe Frazier’s passing was quickly eclipsed by other big news; this week the unfolding –and sickening– Penn State scandal.
R.I.P., Smokin’ Joe. Another casualty of The Big C; yet another instance where even the toughest amongst us can’t overcome that greedy and too often indomitable disease.
In the day or so after the announcement of his death (which, his cancer prognosis having only been announced recently, I hope was relatively quick and as painless as possible) I came across several stories and tributes.
Most unfortunate, if inevitable, comment I’ve read: Down goes Frazier!
Most controversial, and poorly timed, comment: Joe Frazier was the better fighter. And the better man. Wow. Who died and made you Don King? Full article from the New York Times here.
Most intriguing and worthwhile piece: The Lonesome Death of Smokin’ Joe Frazier, courtesy of the always reliable Tom Junod at GQ, here. Junod does the near impossible and sums up his career and life, here:
“Hey Joe!” I said, and walked up to him as my father had 25 years earlier. He held out his hand horizontally, and held it still. “Hey Joe!” I repeated, and Joe, looking at his hand and then at me, said with a familiar smile: “Still steady.”
He was saying that he had won. He was saying that while Ali was a rattling relic with Parkinson’s Syndrome, he, Joe Frazier, was still steady, and capable of keeping his hand still. He was saying, above all, that wherever Ali was, he, Joe Frazier, put him there, and that he was vindicated by the split decision handed down by the fullness of time.
Now Joe Frazier is dead, and Muhammad Ali has once again miraculously outlasted him. But that’s the thing about fighting your battles over the fullness of time: You fight when you’re a young man, and you fight until the final bell. You keep fighting when you’re an old man, and you keep fighting to the death.
There is a bizarre, more than merely ironic symmetry to the fact that once again, Ali managed to outlast Frazier.
Ali, who has been in notoriously difficult shape for over two decades now, keeps on keeping on (and we can hope he is leading as “normal” and/or happy life as his inner circle insists he is), and once again, Frazier gets counted out, this time permanently.
There is not much I can, or would want to try to add to the remarkable life story of Smokin’ Joe. Whether it’s the made-for-the-movies image of Joe pounding slabs of meat in a Philadelphia factory (see: Rocky Balboa), or the way-better-than-fiction melodrama of his relationship with Ali (the fights, the hype, the acrimony, the endurance, the bitterness, the not-fully-resolved antipathy), there has never been anything quite like Joe Frazier. And his relationship with Ali which, well….just watch the HBO documentary The Thriller in Manila. Beyond Sophocles; beyond Shakespeare. No bullshit.
Ali is rightly renowned for his courageous stand against Vietnam and the obvious inspiration he provided for countless black Americans (and white Americans; everyone). What not a lot of people are unaware of is that once Ali was out of boxing (during the “draft-dodging” controversy) Frazier rallied around his (then) friend, lent him money, and spoke out on Ali’s behalf. It could be argued that Ali would not have gotten reinstated, or at least as soon as he did, without Joe’s help. Of course, upon his return, who was Ali’s first fight against? You really can’t make this stuff up. You also can’t overstate the almost sadistic cruelty Ali inflicted upon the man who assisted him, using unspeakable and totally out-of-bounds slurs like “Uncle Tom” and “gorilla”. Of course, without the hostility this ensured, we may not have gotten that epic third fight; the fight that defined both men’s life in profound ways.
Check it out:
When I watch that, and think about what each man experienced, I have little option but concede I have no clue. For mere mortals like the rest of us, how could we begin to understand what it feels like to come that close to death in what could accurately be described as blood sport? In front of millions of eyeballs in real time. Preserved forever on tape. And that’s just the (inconceivable) brutality that was inflicted and endured. What must it have been like for Frazier to know that he could and perhaps should have won that fight? You think you’ve had regrets in your life? How about knowing that Ali had no intention to come out for the 15th? I can scarcely comprehend how Frazier got out of bed each day with this thought gnawing at him like a rat feasts on a cold bone. It’s likely that the same thing that defined him is what redeemed him: the stubborn, unflinching, brave and single-minded drive. To survive. To be the best. To be true to himself.
One need not denigrate Ali to elevate Frazier. It comes dangerously close to cliche, but it must be said that Frazier was a true champion. In many senses of the word. He was a fighter, but his biggest bouts always took place outside the ring.
It is a shame it did not happen while he was alive to see it, but it’s long past the appropriate time for the city of Philadelphia to erect a statue for its favorite son. The one created in the dank, reeking gym where they build legends, as opposed to the bright, plastic city where they make movies. If there is a statue for Rocky, there damn well should be a statue for the man who inspired him.