By: Sean Crose
“You think you can get me to eat flapjacks without my Blue Bonnet?” asks the man in the green sweatshirt.
“Try,” he says, smiling as he slowly shakes his fist at the camera.
The man, who is wearing a literal blue bonnet, is sitting before a setting of pancakes and syrup, a tall glass of milk, and Blue Bonnet margarine.
“That’s Joe Frazier,” my father says to me. “That guy can HIT.”
Hence, my introduction to the great “Smokin’ Joe,” the boxing legend, who passed in 2011 at the age of 67 and whose name is being mentioned a lot lately now that the 50th anniversary of his first fight with Muhammad Ali is upon us. Frazier retained his heavyweight crown on that occasion, making him unquestionably the victor in history’s most famous prize fight. Still, as I came to learn after my odd introduction to Frazier as a young man, the Philly fighter was to lose his two subsequent rematches to Ali after getting clobbered by the towering menace that was a young George Foreman. Yet Frazier will always own the night of March 8th, 1971. And unless your name is Ali (perhaps the most famous professional athlete in history), or even Foreman (who miraculously changed his bad attitude before shockingly regaining the heavyweight title in his forties), it doesn’t get any better than that.
Unfortunately for Frazier, however, he will always play the part of “opponent” in the collective memory. He’s Wellington to Napoleon, the Joker to Batman, the handsome bastard in those old movies who just can’t get the girl because he’s not played by the bigger star. The band Primus has a song eponymously titled “Lee Van Cleef” about the character actor who often played sidekick/foil to Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns Eastwood made famous. “They all wanna be like Clint,” the lyrics go, “but I wanna be like Lee Van Cleef.” It’s an odd song to bring up when writing about Frazier, but I think it’s a telling one.
We may not all want to be like Lee Van Cleef. Or Wellington. Or the Joker. Or the handsome bastard in those old movies. But in a sense, all of us are. Just like Joe Frazier was. They call Ali “The Greatest.” That seems justifiable, frankly. But being “The Greatest” is a very singular thing. Most of us are, at our most competitive, “the opponent.” Or, worse yet, the extra standing off the side of the screen. Joe Frazier is our hero, the greatest among us. For Frazier bested “The Greatest” in history’s biggest fight.
And that, too, is a very singular thing in and of itself.