by Charles Jay
I don’t know that it’s such a natural thing to wax poetic about Joe Frazier, because he wasn’t that kind of fighter, or that kind of figure outside of the ropes. His was a story of true grit more than anything else; of a regular guy making an indelible mark on an irregular business, and finding himself a little out of his element when it came to the “show business” atmosphere his great rival seemed so comfortable in. All the guy did was leave his heart and soul in the ring, time after time after time. That should have been more than enough.
But he got the short shrift because of something that wasn’t really his fault – he just wasn’t Muhammad Ali. He didn’t write poems. He didn’t make bold predictions. He didn’t have a court jester. He didn’t create high drama by yanking victory from the jaws of defeat. As icons go, he didn’t transcend boxing, or sports in general, the way Ali did.
Ali needed him, for sure, to become the legend he was. For Frazier, though, there was a blessing and a curse to having such a famous foil, especially as it was the most famous one of all.
The first time he fought Ali, at Madison Square Garden in 1971, the teacher took a poll in my third grade class. That, in retrospect, seems unusual enough. The poll was overwhelming in favor of Frazier, which, looking at it now, would seem incredible to some, considering the level of worldwide popularity Ali would ultimately attain. But the mood was different then. This was a time when some of the population was stubborn enough to continue to call him “Clay.”
The kids weren’t necessarily FOR Frazier; they were decidedly NOT for Ali. Which really meant, of course, that their parents were not for Ali.
That first fight divided households and neighborhoods, and as has been discussed in documentary form, transformed Frazier into sort of a social symbol, not that he pro-actively did anything to promote that. In fact, he was an unwitting part of that discourse, and by happenstance he gained favor among many simply by NOT being Ali.
I know all the stories about how Frazier’s feelings took a beating from the constant verbal barrage he took at the hands of Ali, because there was no way he was going to match that kind of thing punch for punch. And well into retirement, he resented the fact that his level of adulation was nowhere near that of the self-proclaimed G.O.A.T. (“Greatest of All-Time”).
Even though it produced his most memorable moments in the ring, I imagine that sometimes Frazier wished that the whole Ali circus didn’t exist, because for him, it was really all about fighting.
And boy did he FIGHT.
That’s the precise word for it, plain and simple. Other guys could use finesse. They could throw the jab, move side to side, dance around. Joe Frazier was the quintessential lunch pail guy, coming forward like a steamroller, getting into your chest and into your face, willing to do whatever was necessary to land the big left hook that became his trademark. It sounds like a simple style, yet it has hardly been duplicated with much success, even to this day.
And that style produced the ultimate in contrasts with the fleet-on-his-feet Ali. The first encounter between the two, which was the first time two undefeated heavyweight champions ever met in the ring, was an event carrying a level of anticipation that couldn’t sufficiently be explained to those who weren’t around then. Transposed to this era, it might have been the blockbuster to end all blockbusters. Historians I have spoken to believe that between that fight and the one that took place between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries in 1910, they would have sold to three or four million subscribers, given today’s technology and the size of the pay-per-view universe. I wonder if that wouldn’t be underestimating its impact.
And unquestionably it took two to tango. While Frazier may not have always had a quick quip ready for the press, his savagery inside the ropes took on a personality of its own. And his win in that fight produced the most significant Ali defeat, if for no other reason than that it took place closer to Ali’s prime than any other.
This could naturally be the subject of some dispute, but for my money, considering the stage each man was at in his career, the talent level, the meshing of styles, and the absolute ferocity of the action, Ali-Frazier I was the best thing ever seen in the heavyweight division.
That having been said, Frazier’s most heroic moments may have happened in the third fight with Ali, because by that time, after getting beaten in the rematch with Ali and brutally knocked out by George Foreman, he was simply written off by many. But he worked himself into the fight, extending Ali to the point where the three-time champ described it as “the closest thing to death” he had yet experienced. But it would be, for all intents and purposes, Frazier’s last hurrah, as he didn’t come out for the final round.
Ali made his share of bad decisions, financial and otherwise, but eventually the “Ali Industry” grew and grew. There was a team put in place to “manage his brand.” Much merchandising was done. There is a beautiful museum bearing his name. People have written books about him in profusion. I personally know three people writing Ali books that haven’t even been published yet. With all of his comebacks, there was closed circuit television and much pomp and circumstance.
Meanwhile, there was not much in the way of organization or lavish branding opportunities for Frazier, who wound up living in a small apartment atop his gym in a rundown neighborhood of Philadelphia. His career was not chronicled at length, nor he was not deified like Ali. And when made his own comeback, in 1981, it was relatively unceremonious by comparison, as he boxed to a sloppy draw against Jumbo Cummings on NBC.
Sometimes I wonder how things might have been different if he had won that third fight in Manila. Would he have gone on to have more of a career afterward? Would he have been more of a commercial success in retirement? Would he have allowed such a thing to be engineered for him? How beloved could he possibly have gotten?
We were never going to know any of that. But we do know that his image in the minds of sports fans will not die, because “Ali-Frazier” is now part of the lexicon; a standard use to describe great rivalries, regardless of the field of endeavor.
That’s a legacy Smokin’ Joe had a huge hand in creating. Like I said, it took two to tango.
There – I guess I waxed poetic just a little.