"My name is Smokin’ Joe Frazier, sharp as a razor. Yeah, floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. I’m the man who done the job. Yeah, he know. Look and see…."
This was the late Joe Frazier’s voicemail message. While the reference to Muhammad Ali is unmistakable, the dark, sadistic meaning behind the message is less apparent, so allow me to translate:
I, Joe Frazier, am responsible for Muhammad Ali’s Parkinson’s Disease. I, Joe Frazier, am responsible for the trembling, for the living death of an existence Muhammad Ali is suffering through.
Chillingly cold; a proud, satisfied claim of responsibility for another man’s unimaginable suffering. Seems a bit in conflict with the title of this post huh?
Frazier didn’t always feel that way about Ali-certainly not from 1967-1970.
In 1967, Ali, who at the time was Boxing’s Heavyweight Champion , was drafted to serve in Vietnam. Citing religious reasons, and as many remember, the undeniable truth that "No Vietcong ever called me Nigger", refused to serve, or as he- to be fair, would put it, he refused to "travel 10,000 miles..to murder people"
In short order, Ali was stripped of his title, of his boxing license, and maybe most damning, of the widespread public support he had long enjoyed. The once beloved Champ was called un-American, labeled a traitor; meanwhile he was being used as a puppet of propaganda by the Nation of Islam.
Basically he was "running low", both in the finance and friendship departments.
Running low…but not on empty.
Because Joe Frazier was there.
Joe Frazier was a friend to Muhammad Ali, giving him much needed money privately, and possibly more importantly, a much needed voice of support publicly. Frazier, who had won the Heavyweight title in 1970, outspokenly lobbied for Ali’s reinstatement, be it to the media, or to the "powers that be" (up to and including President Nixon). This was of course not a completely selfless act on Frazier’s part; many considered Ali the "true champion", and Joe wanted the opportunity to cement the legitimacy of his crown. That fact withstanding, Frazier truly liked and respected Ali, and felt compelled to lend a hand when he was down.
Meanwhile, public sentiment shifted with respect to the Vietnam War, and this, most certainly coupled with the work of Frazier, resulted in Ali having his license reinstated in late 1970.
For many, the true Heavyweight Champion was back in Boxing.
For Ali and Frazier, the scene was set, not only for the "Fight of the Century" but for a well-earned thank you, for a warranted display of appreciation by Ali, for at the very least, an acknowledgement of all that Frazier had done.
The Fight happened. The thank you, the appreciation, the acknowledgement, it never came.
Instead of playing the foreign role of humble, appreciative friend, Ali wore the all too familiar hat of manipulative, mean-spirited, shamelessly self-promoting foe. Leading up to their now historic March 8, 1971 match, Ali questioned Frazier’s "blackness", he labeled him an "Uncle Tom", he portrayed him as out of touch with the black community…as a "puppet of the White Man".
Joe Frazier, who along with nearly a dozen siblings, was born, raised, and worked on, a subsistence farm in Beaufort, South Carolina, was having his "black credentials" questioned by Muhammad Ali.
That was the "thank you" Joe Frazier got.
Ali, playing to his most unparalleled of strengths, continued to rhythmically "talk the (racially fueled, baseless , self-serving ) talk", (so to speak), but ultimately, it was an incredulous, and moreover emboldened Joe Frazier who "walked the walk".
In front of a star studded audience at Madison Square Garden, Frazier made evident his superior strength as well as stamina, getting better as the fight progressed, en route to retaining his title via a unanimous, and in the eyes of most, indisputable decision. Understandably, Frazier must have believed his victory would serve as a muzzle of sorts, for the doubters, for his critics, and most importantly, for a battered, and presumably humbled Muhammad Ali.
He was wrong.
That unanimous, seemingly indisputable decision? A gift, according to Ali’s camp, from racially motivated White Judges. Much like morality...or decency, reality had little to do with what Ali said regarding Frazier.
The pair had an anti-climatic rematch in 1974, one which Ali, effectively employing a strategy of holding rather than boxing, won in the same fashion as Frazier had in their first fight-by unanimous decision.
According to Ali, the "white judges" in this instance, "got it right".
This of course set the stage for the rubber match, 1975's "Thrilla in Manila". Leading up to the fight, few gave Frazier a chance, with most simply hoping for him to make a good showing. Ali, likely feeling certain of the matches eventual outcome, took the pre-fight "verbal jabbing" to a different level, to a new height of shameful, to a new low of classless. Frazier, according to Ali, was not only "ugly and stupid", but shared more traits with a "gorilla", than someone "worthy" of being Heavyweight Champion of the World.
In many ways, the actual fight, widely considered one of the greatest in the history of the sport, mirrored the pairs initial 1971 meeting, with Frazier starting off slowly, and Ali dominating the early rounds.
In the middle rounds however, Ali grew visibly tired and Frazier capitalized. The later rounds saw the momentum shift yet again , with Frazier rendered essentially blind from the punishment Ali had inflicted. (Unbeknownst to most, Frazier had been "legally blind" in his left eye since the mid 60's)
Going into the 15th and final Round, Frazier's trainer Eddie Futch had seen enough. Despite the objections of Frazier, Futch "threw in the towel", ending the fight, and changing history, and public perception forever.
What Frazier and Futch didn't know, and couldn't of known, was that to win the fight, to win the title, to change history and his legacy forever, all Frazier had to do was stand up. Ali was exhausted, unable to stand anymore, let alone fight, he was "finished". He told his corner "cut the gloves off" .
Following the fight, Ali was uncharacteristically complimentary of Frazier:
" I'll tell the world right now, [Frazier] brings out the best in me. I'm gonna tell ya, that's one helluva man, and God bless him...He is the greatest fighter of all times, next to me."
In a magazine interview years following their epic trilogy, Ali said he regretted the way he had acted, regretted the things he had said, claiming it was all done "in the heat of the moment" and meant only to "promote the fight".
A magazine interview, not a phone call, not a personal face to face apology; no, what Joe Frazier got for years of humiliation, was a public, self-interested, half-hearted "I kinda messed up-but here's why".
The disrespect, the race baiting, the lies, the incessant belittlement-all what some wish to erroneously call "promoting" or "jesting", was for Frazier, more painful than anything endured in the ring. Joe of course couldn’t fight back with "words", not because of a lack of intelligence, as Ali would have had people believe, but because of a lack of malice, his issue was not one of articulation, but one of principle.
Today, Muhammad Ali has millions upon millions of admirers, with a seemingly endless number of "friends" who will do anything to help him.
In 1967, he had Joe Frazier.
Ali's legend, his sanctity, can be attributed to a number of factors, many of which people choose to ignore... such as luck, such as the public's selective memory, such as his illness.
Such as Joe Frazier.
Should Frazier have been proud of the lasting damage he caused Ali? Absolutely not.
That said, Joe Frazier did make Muhammad Ali who he was, and remains largely responsible for who he is.
Ultimately, Joe Frazier stood for decency, he stood for letting one's "gloves do the talking", he stood up for Muhammad Ali when he was a friend, and stood up to Muhammad Ali when he was a foe.
Ironically, had he "stood up" one more time in Manila, many would know who the better fighter was.
There's no doubt however, who the better man was.
Be Good Friends,