Ali vs Frazier: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Ali vs Frazier: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

By Garry White

“Not every Leave voter is a racist, but every racist will vote Leave.” – I think these words were attributed to folk music icon Billy Bragg. To be honest I am not sure that I fully agree with you there, Bill. I even quite like some of your music – ‘Between the Wars’ was a personal favourite- and I’m even willing to meet you halfway on some of the more half-baked pathways of the socialist manifesto.

But an able wordsmith should be better than mere empty adman slogans. In the real world, nuance should trump absolutism. Whatever your thoughts on Brexit as the most seismic political change in recent British history, and mine aren’t particularly strong either way, to attempt to tar people with the alleged views of unknown strangers seems manifestly unfair. It’s only a couple of steps away from the George Dubya mantra: “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” No thanks, George. I prefer to play my own game. And how did that work out for you and everyone else again?

It’s only a small leap from there to posting stupid stickmen on social media and urging people not to be like John, Bob, or Bill. You’re an idiot and I’m smart mock the self-appointed spokesmen of their group consensus. And, oh my, has the consensus taken us to some fascinating places over the centuries.

Anyway, I digress.

But when journalist Bryant Gumbel asked the very public question: “Is Joe Frazier a White Champion in Black Skin?” Or when Muhamad Ali speculated before their 1971 fight, “That Joe Frazier, he’s gonna get telephone calls from folks in Georgia and Alabama and Mississippi saying, ‘Joe Frazier, you be a white man tonight and stop that draft-dodging n—-,” they did something similar.

They tagged Frazier onto groups he had no wish to be a part of. They then defamed him by this unfair and unwarranted association when all he sought to do was to be allowed to quietly play his own game. If you’re not with us Joe, you’re against us, they seemed to say.

All of a sudden Frazier, formerly the star in his own journey from literal rags to the richest prize in sports, a solid gold representative of his people’s ability to prosper and endure within the confines of a crooked system, was recast as an emissary, or at least an unwitting stooge of George Wallace and other hellfire racists. And at the final reckoning, it is hard to know who of Gumbel’s or Ali’s sin was the greater.

Frazier had lobbied for Ali to get his boxing licence reinstated, even using his power as heavyweight champion of the world to press President Nixon directly. He had been there in the background for Ali when he had been unwantedly cast into the boxing wilderness following his refusal to take the draft. He recalled subbing him, with much-needed dollars during these barren years. There was that infamous drive when Frazier ferried the former champ from Philadelphia to New York, and as they drove, they laughed and kidded how they were going to make bundles of cash together.

Upon arrival, Ali circled the block, came back, pretended he had aimlessly bumped into ‘Smokin Joe’, and served him with a volley of screwball insults delivered in his own inimitable way. The people stopped and stared, the pressman hurried onto the scene, as Ali let him have it. “Joe Frazier is too ugly to be champ,” he exclaimed. “Joe Frazier is too dumb to be champ.” And if these weren’t bad enough, he later threw in a reference to the “Great White Hope,” as well.

To Ali, they were just words, their target aimed only at securing attention and sacks full of greenbacks for them both. But as far as Frazier was concerned, they were a betrayal. This was from the guy that couldn’t even afford the gas to get there himself, and yet here he was verbally attacking and belittling him.

Throughout the years it continued in the same vein. The little gorilla doll that he would ping and snap back and forth in a crude caricature of his rival, and worst of all the insinuation that he was an ‘Uncle Tom’. Years later Frazier admitted that he had initially failed to grasp this comment and assumed that Ali was insinuating that he peeped through windows at women. But it was undoubtedly the cruellest comment of all and one that Gumbel would callously expound on.

It led to Frazier’s children being bullied at school, death threats, and of him being perceived as a compliant and well-heeled beneficiary of the white establishment or worse an unsophisticated stooge that was unable to figure it all out for himself. And it was this lack of sophistication that Ali so mercilessly pulled at, gradually unpicking it until all that was left of Frazier was a burning rage, shrouded in the poisoned smoke of bitterness.

In the ring, their physical and temperamental differences perfectly complimented one another. Ali was erudite, lithe: all balletic grace and athletic perfection. Frazier, come-forward, feet-planting, and granite tough. His style was uncompromising and carrying at its acme a left hook that could pulverise a swinging meat slab in a Philadelphia slaughterhouse. Within the squared circle the fight was a fair and electrifying one. Outside of it, it was nothing short of embarrassing.

‘The Greatest’ would have the press row in stitches. Frazier would try and retort, but he lacked the articulation or dexterity of thought to lay so much as a glove on his nemesis. He would sit there and seethe until there was nothing left for him but an explosion of rage, threats, and intimidation. At best it made him the perpetual bad guy that Ali and others were determined to cast him as. At worst it nakedly shone a light on his lack of sophistication and used its sheen to make him appear little more than an intellectually docile figure of fun. And even worse still it caricatured him in the crudest white stereotypes of a black man.

But for all the laughs and gags it was mean and cruel. A form of ‘punching down’ of the worst kind. A man of Ali’s obvious intelligence cannot have been unaware of this. In boxing terms, it was a matchup between a heavyweight and a flyweight, with the bigger man carrying his smaller foe 15 one-sided rounds for the coliseum-like delectation of the watching public.

And the truth was that of them both it was Frazier that had lived the true life of the dispossessed African American. A nickel and dime commodity to be pushed around and ignored in the burnt fields of South Carolina. The Frazier family’s spot of sharecropper dirt was near-barren land that locals referred to as ‘white dirt’ and was good for growing nothing but cotton and watermelon. As one of 15 children, Frazier had helped his father tend the land there from just eight years old and joined him in fermenting bootleg corn liquor from their own still. By ninth grade, Frazier’s education had already concluded and by the time he was 16, he was married and absconding on a greyhound bus to New York and then Philadelphia. His destiny was one of hard work and low pay within the bloodied walls of a slaughterhouse. Eventually, he would trade its stale blood for that of the boxing ring.

By contrast, Ali’s childhood in Kentucky, with his sign writer father and a mother, who worked as a domestic helper; was one of infinite security and prospect. Whilst a young Cassius Clay was learning the rudiments of the fight game from Police Officer Joe E Martin at Louisville’s Columbia Gym, Frazier was pounding a burlap sack filled with rags, bricks, and moss on his family’s tenanted dustbowl.

How this reversal of image must have irked Frazier. In any other era, he would have been the torchbearer for his community, but Ali managed to turn him into at best a comic interlude or at worst a traitor to his people.

When he stepped snarling into the ring for their first encounter at Maddison Square Garden in 1971, he had already confirmed through gritted teeth his commitment to killing Ali. Not for the first-time boxing had found a fight that it deemed able to tag as ‘The Fight of the Century’ but this one outstripped all those that had gone before it. It is no secret that Frazier got the verdict from all three judges on the cards, even experiencing the macabre pleasure of sending the ‘The Greatest’ to the canvas with a crashing left-hook in the final round. Dazed and hurt Ali survived to hear the final bell.

Where Frazier was concerned, Ali always had to have the final word.

The two men received an even share of 5 million dollars for their exploits. At the time it was the biggest purse in boxing history. They deserved every penny, but it came at a hard physical and mental price. Whilst they carried the metaphoric mailbags full of cash out of the arena, the broken pieces of themselves that they’d left there, were casually swept, and dumped into the trash.

They would meet again three years later. Along the way, Frazier would lose his title after getting beaten up and pulverized in two uncompromising rounds by the formidable George Foreman. Whereas a ridiculously active Ali, amongst a host of victories, had traded first defeat and then victory with Ken Norton. The much-awaited sequel failed to ignite, with Ali spoiling and evading on his way to a unanimous if uneventful victory.

The third fight in the Philippines is one of pure Ali cannon. ‘The Thrilla in Manila’ as it was colloquially known, was for many experts the better fight than the ‘Rumble in the Jungle, but the latter in the fullness of time has outstripped it in the public consciousness. As a rubber match, it really had everything: a gladiatorial duel played out in stifling heat, with both combatants fighting to the limit of their endurance.

If both men left pieces of themselves in that Madison Square Garden ring four years earlier, then when they stumbled dehydrated and battle-scarred out of the Araneta Coliseum, they did so minus their very souls. When trainer, Eddie Futch, pulled out Frazier at the end of the 14th round, he broke his heart. 

‘Smokin’ Joe was willing to go to the well and beyond into hell if meant not coming second to Ali. Futch tried to soothe him by saying solemnly that “No one will forget what you did here tonight.” Frazier certainly didn’t. He went on to loathe and denigrate his old trainer with the same unbending fortitude that he had formerly reserved for Ali only.

For Frazier, it was the end of the road. The following year George Foreman battered him again, this time into retirement. He resurfaced five years later where he underwhelmed at the International Amphitheatre, Chicago, on his way to a drawn verdict with Floyd Cummings in December 1981. Just a week after Frazier’s ill-judged comeback Ali shuffled his way to a points defeat against Trevor Berbick. Mercifully, it was the end of the road for ‘The Greatest’ too.

A year earlier Larry Holmes had dominated Ali and forced his corner to pull him out. The once elusive quicksilver shadow that was Ali, now recast simply as a shadow, found itself remarkably on the end of more than half the punches that Holmes threw. Worse still the limited Berbick was allowed to throw Ali around as if he were an unrecognised Ming vase in the back room of a junk shop.

Ali and Frazier were done. They had nothing left. They had made millions but only as part of a wager that had compelled them to bet everything. Perhaps, at the final reckoning, even before the big houses and the flash cars had been spirited away, they only did little better than break even on their physical and mental investment.

Several times over the years a reflective Ali offered an apology to Frazier, once famously to his children. But Frazier was adamant that Ali had never been gracious enough to say it to his face. There were periods when they would make up, but then the old resentment would resurface. Frazier could never get over his old foe’s place in the world, his unquenchable charisma that had made him one of the most culturally significant people of the 20thcentury. Ali was bigger than boxing, sport, politics, music, film, art, pop culture – everything! He was the acme, the original, whereas poor Joe was nothing more or less than a noble bruiser. In normal circumstances, against a normal opponent, that would have been enough.

Frazier felt that he should have had the honour of lighting the Olympic flame at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. It was perhaps the final delusion. This was a domain where ‘Smokin’ Joe lacked the lexicon to compete with even a heavily diminished Ali in any way at all. Frazier was boxing; he was a towering figure of late 20th century sports, but that is where his wide shadow began and ended.

What Ali had was simply never within his reach. And how that must have hurt and tore away at him as his financial status dwindled and he would lie awake in that small room above his little Philadelphia gym. The place where it all started, where the road was laid out to him, like a straight dessert highway converging unhindered into the bright lights of Las Vegas.

He had it all and yet somehow it all slipped through his fingers. The money, the respect, elements of his fame. And he blamed Ali. Some of it fair and some of it not. “I hated Ali,” Frazier once told Thomas Hauser. “I know things would have been different for me if he hadn’t been around. I’d have gotten a lot more respect. I’d have had more respect from my own kind…and I still want to take him apart piece by piece and mail him back to Jesus,” he said menacingly.

He was sure he’d, at last, outlive his nemesis, but liver cancer intervened. Floyd Mayweather picked up the tab for his funeral and Ali informed the masses “The world has lost a great champion.” Before adding in a hushed whisper, one that Frazier had previously been happy to mock. “I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration.”

They say that both men had finally made peace before the end, but it was only ever Frazier who possessed a reason to be bitter.

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