Joe Frazier’s Historical Significance
I’m a big boxing fan, but I don’t pretend to be an expert on former heavyweight champion Smokin’ Joe Frazier, who passed away last night at the age of 67. There has been a remarkable moment of sadness coming from all corners of the boxing community, from the classy Lennox Lewis to the controversial Floyd Mayweather Jr., who has promised that his “Money Team” will pay for the funeral. I share that sadness. And that’s why I want to echo Ta-Nehisi Coates, who tweeted about the disappointing New York Times obituary, “Not really an honor to Frazier to start an obit claiming he was a ‘better man’ than Ali.”
Of course, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier are inextricably linked. But the obituary’s author dwelled too much on comparing Frazier and Ali as fighters and as men, while completely ignoring Frazier’s political and historical significance. He notes that Ali called Frazier “a gorilla” and “stupid.” As this far better Christian Science Monitor tribute notes, Ali also called Frazier an “Uncle Tom,” while Frazier called Ali “Cassius Clay,” his “slave name” that he renounced upon joining the Nation of Islam and changing it to Muhammad Ali in 1964.
Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier represented the most important theme of African American history, the struggle between separation and integration. When Frazier and Ali first fought, in 1971 (clip above), African Americans had overcome slavery and Jim Crow, but Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, and Black Power was on the rise. Ali was a member of the Nation of Islam who had been stripped of his title while in prison for refusing to serve in the military during the Vietnam war. He represented the spirit of Black separatism. Frazier, on the other hand, was the establishment fighter, the “white man’s” champ.
When the lighter-skinned Ali called the darker Frazier an “Uncle Tom,” the moment was rich with irony. Frazier, a descendent of share-croppers, was one of 12 children born in rural South Carolina. As the NYT obit notes, he grew up “picking vegetables for 15 cents a crate when not helping his father, a handyman who lost his left arm in an auto accident.” He brought $200 with him when he took a Greyhound Bus to New York to find better opportunities. He then went to Philly, and found occasional work in a meat locker, where he punched hunks of meat like a heavy bag, inspiring Sylvester Stallone to include a similar scene in Rocky.
The NYT piece fails to mention Ali’s upbringing. Though hardly wealthy, the Clays lived a relatively comfortable and secure lower-middle class life in Louisville, Kentucky. Both of Ali’s parents were regularly employed, and he graduated from high school before heading off to the Olympics. Nonetheless, he became a symbolic hero to Blacks in America and Africa, as demonstrated in the Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings. The movie chronicles Ali’s trip to Zaire in 1974, where he upset then heavyweight champion George Foreman. Though now more famous for his grilling machine, the Houston-born Foreman was once a ferocious fighter. Like Ali and Frazier, he was also an Olympic gold medalist, and like Frazier, had grown up in poverty, yet he could not seem to win his people’s hearts the way his charismatic opponent could. Indeed, many of the Zaire locals thought Foreman was white before he showed up. Perhaps this degree of detail on Ali would have been too much for a Frazier obit, but some contrast of Ali and Frazier’s background helps place their historical significance.
Of course, we shouldn’t forget the fights. Boxing was the medium by which this drama, this pivotal conflict in Black history between separation and integration, was played out symbolically on the world stage. Both Ali and Frazier are among the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time. Ali beat Frazier 2 out of 3 times, but each fight was exceptionally close, and Frazier dropped Ali in the 15th and final round of their first fight, the only knockdown of the trilogy. Frazier stood 5’11” and his fighting weight fluctuated between 177 and 225 pounds, he was fairly small for a heavyweight.
Had Frazier come of age in boxing today, he likely would have cut weight and reigned in the cruiserweight division – which has a 200 pound weight limit, up from 190 several years ago, but which did not exist in Frazier and Ali’s time. Back then, anything above the 175 pound light-heavyweight limit was considered heavyweight, so Frazier frequently defeated foes much larger than himself, though he always outweighed the 6’3” Ali in their fights.
The denouement to their stories is a sad one. Frazier lost much of his wealth. Ali, on the other hand, lost his health, and continues to suffer from Parkinson’s disease, which is likely related to all the punishment he took in the ring, much of it dealt out by Frazier. They both stayed bitter for a long time, but more recently, their moods lightened. Frazier remained in good humour up until his dying day, frequently bursting into song in interviews. Ali converted to mainstream Sunni Islam in 1975, and has now found his spiritual home in Sufism. Though still shaky and visibly ill, he has embraced the broader American community and it has embraced him. In 1996, he lit the torch at the Atlanta Olympic Games, and the Olympic committee replaced the gold medal he had won in the 1960 Olympics but had allegedly tossed in a river.
And now Frazier, the man who helped make Ali the second most important figure in American sports history (after Jackie Robinson), is gone. Boxing is in decline, as mixed martial arts have risen in popularity without achieving any of the political significance that the “sweet science” once had. If Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather ever fight, it will be entertaining. When Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali fought, it mattered.