By Johnny Walker
Smokin’ Joe Frazier died in an America that no longer cared in a mass way about the sport in which he once loomed so large. Heavyweight boxing used to be front page news in America, and it certainly was that in the heyday of Frazier and his main rival, Muhammad Ali. But for a variety of reasons too complex to go into here, boxing itself is now at best a niche item in a crowded sports landscape, only occasionally crossing into mass consciousness for a fleeting evening on pay-per-view. And heavyweight boxing has all but disappeared.
Today, it is in Europe, where the champion Klitschko brothers, Wladimir and Vitali, draw crowds of up to 50,000 people to their fights, that the heavyweight division of boxing is thriving. The fall of the Soviet Union has meant an influx of hungry Eastern European fighters into the division that America dominated for so long, with names like Louis, Marciano, Liston, Ali, Foreman and Frazier. It must have hurt and puzzled Joe Frazier to some extent to see his sport fall so far in the American public estimation from the great heights he took it to in the 1970s in his classic trilogy with Ali – fights from which neither man emerged quite the same as they were before. America loves a winner, and sometimes when America stops winning, it takes its football and goes home.
But while some will surely take the passing of Joe Frazier as a cue upon which to also eulogize the sport that made Frazier famous, to do so would be an injustice to both the man and the sport of which he was a proud and classy champion. Heavyweight boxing is not dead – its center of gravity has moved elsewhere, however, from New York City and Las Vegas to Mannheim and Hamburg. But those young and hungry European fighters have also seen the film clips of Frazier’s greatest battles, and he is a hero to many of them as well. The legend of Joe Frazier belongs not just to America, but to the world.
And who knows? Another Joe Frazier may be training in a sweaty gym somewhere in America as I type this. A recent New York Times article pointed out that as many school sports programs get axed due to the failing economy, boxing gyms are making a comeback in many poor urban areas, filling up with eager pupils. Hard economic times, such as Frazier knew growing up in South Carolina, and as many of the Eastern European fighters also know too well, often create great fighters. Boxing may never be what it once was in America ever again, but a champion on the level of a Joe Frazier would surely put it back on the map.
So please, eulogize a great man and a great boxing champion in Joe Frazier. But don’t cry for the sport of boxing, which is still alive, and in many places, doing very well. And given the cyclical nature of things, that sport may one day yet regain some of its lost luster in the place where Joe Frazier became an icon –perhaps when we least expect it to.