Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Farewell to Smokin' Joe Frazier - and an Indictment of Ali

Frazier fights Ali in 1971; Frazier  (inset)
The sport of boxing said farewell to heavyweight champion Joe Frazier who, after bravely battling liver cancer, heard the final bell toll on a life that was truly astonishing in it's fullness.

Smokin' Joe's funeral service was attended by an estimated crowd of more than 4,000 - a fitting display of respect and recognition for one of modern boxing's most iconic warriors. It is the kind of respect that this most esteemed heavyweight certainly deserved after a lifetime of professional and personal struggle.

This blog entry is not meant to serve as a eulogy, a biography, nor a list of accomplishments - all that information is readily available on the internet, at the library or in the Boxing Hall of Fame where one can learn about the amazing life of Smokin' Joe. But what I would like to do is attempt to define the importance of Joe Frazier to heavyweight boxing, especially when we attempt to define greatness, because any discussion of the greatest heavyweights that does not include Joe Frazier is, quite simply, flawed and incomplete.

Well, just who is the greatest? Ask just about anyone who thinks they know something about boxing just who "the greatest" heavyweight boxer was and it is likely that the answer you will hear starts with "Muhammad" and ends with "Ali" - AKA Cassius Clay. True or not, perception is critical in comparisons of greatness and nowhere is this more evident than when evaluating great boxers. Ali's antics outside the ring are as important to this particular discussion as his accomplishments inside it and help to define how greatness is perceived as well as earned.

Whether Ali is or isn't the greatest is not nearly as important as how he, or any boxer, becomes automatic entrants in this type of discussion. The reality is that greatness in boxing is defined as much by the quality of opposition as it is by records or championship belts. Like it or not, Ali simply would not be Ali as we remember him today were it not for the men he fought - colorful, respected, and feared men like Sonny Liston, George Foreman and the inimitable Smokin' Joe Frazier.

While I would like my thoughts on Ali  to wait for another day, focusing instead more directly upon Frazier, that looks to be impossible as they are forever entwined in our collective memory. I believe that Ali is remembered as much for his victimization as for the memorable ring wars he waged. Who doesn't recall his controversial name change, his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, or the shocking image of Ali ravaged by Parkinson's disease lifting his shaking, withered arm to light the Olympic torch?

But who really remembers Joe Frazier? He seems always a prop to Ali's story line and while I contend that Ali earned public respect through collective sympathy engendered by a media machine hungry to anoint the next Jack Johnson, it was Joe Frazier who earned respect simply by being a man. A true, honest and tough man who helped others outside the ring while meeting the best face to face inside it. In other words - he wasn't just a step on Ali's personal ladder of social ascendancy and sainthood, he was as historically important as Ali.

While Ali is, I concede, a fascinating historical figure - and an all time great heavyweight - his life is more interesting for the conflict which defined him and the era in which he fought. Frazier, however, is known more for what he did in the ring against Ali than what he did for others outside it. This kind of oversight is, sadly, always lamented AFTER these men have passed away, silencing forever their personal perspective - leaving us only the slim pickings of a media machine that chooses more often than not to manufacture heroes rather than recognize real ones.

Frazier spent most of his life in Philadelphia and was as much the face and spirit of this town as the fictional "Rocky" whose image has been cast in stone at Philadelphia's Art Museum. Even a casual glimpse at the city's charitable foundations bears, almost everywhere, the indelible imprint of Joe Frazier. It's not often you will hear me agree with Jesse Jackson but I can't help but nod my head in enthusiastic agreement with the Reverend when he said, "There deserves to be a statue of Joe Frazier in downtown Philadelphia." Indeed. It seems Frazier's charity is forgotten or ignored when we consider this Philadelphia sports hero especially against the melodramatic backdrop of Ali's considerable shadow.

We tend to remember Ali as a martyr, a champion of the people, a social victim who is still celebrated as a hero, even a role model, with statues of his own - testaments to his courage, if not his character. But that social celebration is myopic, in my opinion, failing as it does to remember that Ali was also as selfish and self serving as the very institutions in which he felt victimized by. He was willing to crush someone to get what he wanted, even if what he said was laced with lies, propaganda, and racism. Just consider the things he said about Joe Frazier, a man who was every bit as courageous, every bit the symbol of the struggle for equality as Ali has become venerated for. More to the point, Frazier found a way to carve out an identity that was not at odds with society nor was restricted in his actions by his own selfish narrative. Whereas Ali relied on public self flagellation for the social ills of the 60s to emerge a champion outside the ring, it was Joe who was revered by all who actually knew him no matter what decade.

Undersized and possessed of an indomitable spirit, Smokin' Joe refused to allow Ali's absurd and disgraceful character attacks define him. Unlike Sonny Liston before him, Joe Frazier was no man's fool, nor prop, and he was able to etch out his own glorious legacy despite Ali's despicable behavior. And he did it without stooping to the seamy depths of which Ali seemed almost to revel in. After having been called an "Uncle Tom", a "House Nigger", a "Gorilla" by the socially revered Ali - Joe maintained his dignity and his manhood by refusing to give in to the bully.

Just as he did in his three amazing fights with Ali, he fought that propaganda with fire and brimstone, keeping the feud as personal as Ali had made it and never backing down. Asked what he thought of Ali lighting the torch for the 1996 Olympics he said, "...if it had been me I'd have pushed him into the flame." While that may seem harsh, the indignities heaped upon Frazier and his family because of Ali's inflammatory attacks is hard to fathom now due to the whitewashing Ali's life has undergone in the media since their memorable battles. From death threats to social ridicule, the Frazier family has endured too much at the hands of the "saintly" Ali  and his blind followers, and while it was nice to see Ali say something nice, for once, about Joe in public he could have retracted his ridiculous comments of the past at any point in his life but chose to wait until Joe could no longer respond.

I tend to walk a lonely line and refuse to state definitively who I believe is the single greatest heavyweight boxer ever and instead try to consider boxers as they defined their eras. I also recognize that the brutal nature of this sport rarely allows an individual to definitively claim an era as his own. This stance has allowed me to immerse myself in the lore of the sport as a whole rather than trying to focus all my energies upon one man.

To this end I have spent a great deal of time studying the greats of every era and it has allowed me to see that greatness seems dependent upon greatness. For every Ali  there has to be a Frazier - someone who shines just as bright and who ultimately deserves as much recognition and respect. Try as I might I can not separate the two historically but when it comes to a comparison  - mano y mano - I come away with the feeling that it was Joe Frazier who was the ultimate champion - in and out of the ring.

I would be happy to discuss the particulars of any and all of the characterizations I have put forth above. Additionally, I welcome actual discussion of each fighters deserved recognition in the discussion of  "greatest heavyweights boxers"- and that includes discussions of their ring records, opponents, styles etc. This could be fun if I have any followers who would like to comment. I censor no one.

Rest in Peace Joe Frazier - one of the Greatest