Joe Frazier’s death on Monday from liver cancer was overshadowed by the Penn State sex abuse scandal. Wasn’t that always the way with Joe? Something or somebody always seemed to steal his thunder.
He was one of the greatest heavyweight champions who ever lived, losing fights only to Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Yet, he was perpetually in someone’s shadow. Some sportswriters went so far as to refer to him as “a second banana.” His great trainer, the late Eddie Futch — the man whom Frazier never forgave for throwing in the towel in the 14th round of the Ali-Frazier Thrilla in Manilla — once told me, “Remember this about Joe: he ain’t no one’s second banana.”
No fighter had more heart or less charisma than Joe Frazier (Take a look at his career highlights).
So much of his life and career were defined by his rivalry with Muhammad Ali that we scarcely saw Joe unless he was preparing for a fight or actually in the ring with Ali. Nearly forgotten now is that he made his film debut in Kon Ichikawa’s great 1965 documentary on the 1964 Olympics, Tokyo Olympiad. Why didn’t Frazier’s gold medal bring him more adulation with the public? Because he was remembered, unfairly, as a “replacement” champion: He became our heavyweight representative after Buster Mathis (whom Frazier would later beat as a pro, twice) broke his hand.
After he beat Ali in their first meeting, the Fight of the Century at Madison Square Garden, he put together an R&B group, Joe Frazier and the Knockouts (remembered by Maura Johnston in these pages). Ali made him a laughing stock by telling reporters that Joe was the only member of their particular ethnic group “who didn’t have rhythm.” Ali conveniently forgot his own tone-deaf performance of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” on his album “The Greatest.” Even when he got a juicy little bit part as himself in Rocky, Joe had to endure taunts from the celluloid Ali, Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed.
In real life, Frazier took no sass from Ali; witness their famous confrontation on The Wide World of Sports with Howard Cosell as they watched highlights of their March 8, 1971 bout. What we did not know at the time, what we would not know until Thomas Hauser’s Muhammad Ali, His Life and Times (1991) and the late Phil Berger’s Smokin’ Joe (1996), was that not only had they been friends before they fought, Frazier had taken Ali’s side against the press against the boxing establishment and the U.S. government when they stripped of his title for resisting the draft during the Vietnam War, but Joe had loaned Ali money to tide him over the years when no one would give him a license to fight.
We will never know why Ali chose to humiliate Frazier before their third fight on October 1, 1975, calling him “the white man’s champion” and jabbing a rubber gorilla at him, screaming, “C’mon, Gorillah, we’re gonna have a thrilla in Manila!” The answer went far beyond the only explanation Ali ever offered, “to sell tickets.”
Frazier, whose youth on a South Carolina farm and work in Philadelphia slaughterhouses, had a life far closer to the average black man than Ali, who grew up in a middle class home in Louisville, Kentucky, could have ever known. Ali gave Joe a terrible beating in Manila, but absorbed one himself; who knows if the Parkinson’s that he lives with today isn’t the result of Frazier’s vengeance?
Let’s pay both men the courtesy of taking them at their word when, on the 30th anniversary of their first fight in 2001, Ali went out of his way to tell the press, “I said a lot of things in the heat of the moment that I shouldn’t have said, called him names I shouldn’t have called him. I apologize for that. I’m sorry. It was all meant to promote the fight.” (It all rang true, except the last part.) At the same event, Frazier, who arrived late, was told what Ali said. His response was, “We have to embrace each other. It’s time to talk and get together. Life’s too short.” Somebody say Amen.