Former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier died November 7th 2011 at the age of 67 from liver cancer. Frazier rose to professional prominence in the 1960’s after winning an Olympic Gold Medal at the Tokyo Summer Games in 1964.

As background for those readers not familiar with the state of boxing in America 50 years ago, it was a very major sport, perhaps third in overall popularity and visibility to baseball and football. Major fights received significant television and newspaper coverage. There were “boxing writers” at the big national newspapers. The general public had a solid awareness of who the champions were in the various weight divisions.

This is in stark contrast to the decline of boxing’s popularity today and the meteoric rise in the past decade of Ultimate Fighting/Mixed Martial Arts. Boxing slowly strangled itself to death with the advent of multiple bureaucratic “Governing bodies,” with each different organization recognizing a different boxer as champion in the same division. Sports fans, faced with a bewildering array of indiscernible organizations like the World Boxing Association, the World Boxing Council, the International Boxing Federation, etc., each recognizing different fighters as champions, soon grew weary of the whole thing and today, boxing has been reduced to near-irrelevance in the sporting world.

UFC/MMA—with its faster-paced, less-restrictive rules—has caught on with a new, younger generation of sports fans, the same fans who are accustomed to the immediate impact and explosive results they enjoyed from video games growing up. To this new generation of followers, “traditional” boxing was too slow, too chess-like in its often-deliberate pace and its intense strategic approach.

But boxing enjoyed tremendous popularity a half a century ago. From the early ‘60’s to the early ‘80’s, there were arguably more highly-skilled, truly excellent fighters competing for dominance than at any other time in the sport’s history, before or since. Champions and contenders alike, there were countless names that transcended the boxing world and made it into the general public’s consciousness: Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, Emile Griffith, Jimmy Ellis, Jerry Quarry, Ron Lyle, “Sugar Ray” Leonard, Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler, Tommy “The Hitman” Hearns, Alexis Arguello, Earnie Shavers, George Foreman. And dozens more.

In this Golden Age of boxing, two figures stood out above all the others: Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali (nee Cassius Clay). Ali (as Clay) won the Olympic Light Heavyweight Gold Medal in Rome in 1960, and turned professional shortly thereafter. His amazing skill brought him to the top of the sport at the tender age of 22, when he won the World Heavyweight Championship in 1964.

Right after winning the title, he did something that set his life on a controversial trajectory from which it would never deviate: Clay announced to the world that he had become a follower of the Nation of Islam religion and had changed his name to Muhammad Ali, rejecting forever, as he put it, “my slave name.”

The great majority of people in America had never even heard of Islam or the Muslim religion. Many were confused by his actions and put off by his angry denouncements of “white” American culture and society. In the coming years, Ali would add to his controversial image by demeaning his opponents and boastfully predicting the exact round of their demise. Much of that braggadocio was intentional on Ali’s part, designed to hype the publicity (and therefore the ticket sales) of his bouts. Yet he remained a lightening rod for conflicting opinions, as people were equally divided as to whether they loved his outgoing, anti-establishment style, or whether they wanted to see his mouth “shut for good.”

Regardless, Ali was a compelling figure. Tall, handsome, and fast and graceful in the ring, he had a remarkably quick wit, an always-ready smile, and just enough of a constant twinkle in his eye that one never knew exactly how seriously he took himself.

He found the perfect foil in ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell, whose own rise to fame came about primarily because of his coverage of Ali.

One exchange in particular seemed to exemplify the repartee the two enjoyed.

Interviewing Ali before a fight in the late 1960’s, Cosell—who thought of himself as quite the intellectual and linguist, said to Ali, “Muhammad, you’re being unusually truculent today.”

To which Ali replied, without skipping a beat, “I don’t know what truculent is, but if it’s good, then I’m it!”

Ali’s controversial image reached its zenith in April 1967, when he refused induction into the U.S. Army after being drafted, uttering his forever-famous line, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”

That solidified his positive image and standing among the growing numbers of anti-war young Americans, who never understood or agreed with our involvement in a seemingly meaningless foreign war in Vietnam, half a world away.

But just as many Americans—many older, more ‘conservative’ types, but not exclusively— felt the opposite. Never having been particularly fond of his arrogant, bragging style and his insulting talk about traditional American culture, they saw Ali’s stance as an indication that while Ali was perfectly happy to benefit from and profit from the opportunities afforded him by the American sports profession, many resented him when he wouldn’t give back—even a little— to the country in which he’d become rich and famous. History is full of notable American athletes and performers (like James Stewart, Ted Williams, Andy Rooney and Pat Tillman, to name just a fraction) who stepped up when needed and served their country bravely and honorably.

As a result of his refusing induction, Ali was stripped of recognition as champion by all the athletic commissions around the country and his boxing license was rescinded. He was forced into sports exile, a champion no longer.

By the late 1960’s, a new heavyweight boxer was making a name for himself with his explosive, aggressive style and dramatic victories: a young slugger from Philadelphia named Joe Frazier.

Frazier was a simple, uncomplicated person, totally apolitical, the complete opposite of Ali. He didn’t boast. He wasn’t involved in political controversy. He was down-to-earth, friendly (“I’m Joe Frazier, sharp as a razor! What’s your name?”), and hard working. Early in his career he trained at night in the gym after working in a Philadelphia slaughterhouse all day. (The Sylvester Stallone scene in the original “Rocky” movie of him punching a carcass was inspired directly from Frazier’s early experiences.)

Short, stocky, with an ungainly ring gait, here too, he was the complete opposite of Ali’s graceful, almost melodic movements in the ring. But in his own way, he was just as effective and soon ran up an impressive undefeated string of victories.

Joe and Muhammad became fairly friendly during Ali’s forced exile from boxing. As Frazier’s success grew, he loaned Ali money to assist him and lobbied hard to the various boxing authorities to reinstate Ali’s boxing license. There was undoubtedly a measure of self-interest in such actions for Frazier (a future bout between the two would be a high-paying extravaganza for them both), but compassion played a major role for Frazier as well. That’s who he was.

As circumstances developed, Ali did resume his boxing career within a short time. Ali and Frazier met in three memorable fights. Their trilogy set the standard for sports rivalries, as Yankees-Red Sox, Celtic-Lakers, and Borg-McEnroe contests have always been referred to as “Ali-Frazier confrontations.”

Yet it’s their third fight (held in Manila, in the Philippines, Oct 1st, 1975) that really defined for the ages who they were as boxers—and as people.

Ali had always taunted Frazier in the publicity build-up to their previous fights. As I had written previously, “Frazier, for his part, seemed overwhelmed by the events. A simple man from a poor, humble background in rural South Carolina, Joe never knew exactly how to respond to Ali’s taunting. Play along or ignore him? Am I ‘in’ on the joke or am I the butt of the joke? Is Ali serious when he says these bad things about me or is it all tongue-in-cheek, designed to maximize the publicity?”

But this time, Ali went further—much further. He derided and insulted Frazier to an extent never seen before in sports history. Standing at a podium during a pre-fight press conference, Ali pulled out a small rubber toy gorilla, and announced, “It’s gonna be a thrilla and a chilla and a killa when I get the gorilla in Manila!” while he repeatedly punched the rubber toy, its head wildly bobbing back and forth. “Take that Joe! You so ugly, Joe!”

Frazier was incensed. “Do you know what it’s like to have your young son go to school and have to fend off questions about why his father is being called an ugly gorilla? This was a man I helped when no one else would. I spoke up for him. I gave him money when he was broke and desperate. Now he does this?”

Their third fight (the “Thrilla in Manila” name stuck) was perhaps the most brutal, hard-fought boxing match ever. Frazier—thought to be washed up by most boxing experts and by Ali also—fought with an intensity rarely, if ever, seen before. Ali, his inherent physical advantages over Frazier notwithstanding, was pushed beyond his limit and he dug down deep within himself to produce a superhuman effort of skill, courage and stamina that may never be eclipsed in a ring again. At the end of the 14th round (with just the 15th and final round to go), Ali came back to his corner and said to his trainer Angelo Dundee, “Cut ‘em off,” indicating that he’d had enough, he couldn’t go on, cut off my gloves. But astonishingly across the ring, Eddie Futch, Frazier’s trainer, had already motioned to the referee, Carlos Padilla, that Frazier couldn’t continue. The Thilla was over and Ali had won. Ali later called that fight, “The closest thing to death.”

Some people say that the basic nature of boxing makes it a metaphor for many aspects of life. It could be considered the sports equivalent of capitalism. There are some basic rules and guidelines, a few ethical boundaries the contestants aren’t supposed to cross (“Protect yourself at all times,” and “No hitting behind the head,” etc.), but beyond that, it’s completely up to the individual boxer to devise a winning strategy that will beat their competition, using only their own guile, skills, and cunning. Not unlike starting a private business, taking all the risks, putting yourself on the line after sizing up and evaluating your competition. You either succeed or fail on your own. There’s no one there to catch you if you fall.

This is in marked contrast to, say, baseball or football or basketball, sports that operate like centrally-managed economies: Central management, directing large swaths of resources within very strict guidelines, with very definite rules governing every move, towards a very finite, tangible goal. Baseball goes 9 innings, every time. Football goes 60 minutes, every time. But only boxing can end without warning, via knockout, at any time.

Others have suggested that boxing’s wide-open, unscripted, improvised nature is much like the open, improvised nature of jazz music, whereas the more structured sports are similar to large symphonies with a central conductor directing the group’s moves and guiding it towards a known, predictable conclusion.

Similarly, the individual fighters themselves take on personae of politicians or well-known captains of industry or famous performers. In any group, there are those who take chances, who value hard work and a no-nonsense approach above all else. There are also innovators whose vision and creativity break out of the mold of what was previously thought possible and emblazon new directions.

The world is made up of a continuum of people and approaches to life, from all flash/no substance ‘takers’ who work any given situation strictly for their own personal benefit, to all work/no quit ‘givers’ concerned only with the greater good.

Ali and Frazier certainly represented vastly different personal styles, and perhaps just as vastly different approaches to life, but it’s up to each person individually to decide for themselves where on that continuum Ali and Frazier fall.

The story goes that an old boxing trainer, when asked to predict the winner of a closely-matched fight, came out with this mangled version of something Mark Twain once wrote:

“Ya takes yer pick and ya makes yer choice.”

I made mine a long time ago.

Comments