Ali, Frazier, Jackson, Stallone: Of Image, Race, Politics, and Myth

Monday's Philadelphia funeral for former heavyweight boxing champ Joe Frazier brought some old but still very salient issues back to the fore. Frazier's sudden death from liver cancer has reminded many of some uncomfortable truths.

One of the great figures of the "Golden Age" of boxing in the '60s and '70s, Frazier ended up very much slighted and neglected, unfairly so, chewed up and spit out by a celebrity culture that opts for popular myths. And he was whipsawed by ruthless racial politics, from right and left.

As I wrote last week here on the Huffington Post, I met Joe Frazier years ago in Vegas. He was very lively, a joshing sort who was quick to utter what turned out to be his latter-day catchphrase, "Joe Frazier, sharp as a razor." Which wasn't exactly true, but of course was his way of comparing himself to his nemesis, Muhammad Ali, so far removed now from his once dazzling persona.

Ali was the most famous athlete of the 20th century, an icon of social change, in his and Frazier's heyday the most famous person on the planet. He rejected his "slave name," embraced Islam, refused induction into the military, opposed the Vietnam War, promoted black power but ultimately reached out to whites.

Former rival Muhammad Ali and Rev. Jesse Jackson, who argued that Philadelphia, which features a statue to the fictional boxer Rocky Balboa, should accord Joe Frazier at least as much honor, attended Frazier's funeral Monday at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

He also rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, even some who would have otherwise have been admiring, as recounted in last season's key episode, The Suitcase, of that great meditation on a slice of the '60s, Mad Men. There's an archive of my writings on that here.

It's a singular story, but it needed Joe Frazier to become a great epic. Frazier was friendly with Ali, supported Ali in his bid for reinstatement, helped him financially as he battled the government, and didn't take part in the tournament called to replace Ali as champion of most of the boxing federations. But Frazier became the champion anyway.

Ali used Frazier as a foil to promote the clash of the titans that fight fans wanted, and that would help get his boxing license back, along with a huge payday. Since he was anti-establishment, Frazier must be establishment, and thus the enemy, even if in reality he had lived the poor and working class lives Ali never knew. It became that era's version of politically correct to buy in to Ali's line, though even Jesse Jackson now acknowledges it wasn't so.

Frazier and Ali battled three times in the 1970s, the first and last of them for the world heavyweight championship. The first, dubbed "The Fight of the Century" and freighted with massive sociopolitical significance, took place on March 8th, 1971 in Madison Square Garden. Ali upped the ante in his promotional tactics, taunting Frazier as stupid, ugly, an establishment figure, an "Uncle Tom," a "gorilla." Not only did he work to make a sporting rivalry political, he made it deeply and offensively personal, especially so in the run-up to the Thrilla in Manila, as epic and brutal a fight as ever occurred, in October 1975.

Ali clearly went way over the line in his baiting of and attacks on Frazier, who was a boxer, not a politician. In this, he was influenced by the Nation of Islam, the highly controversial black separatist religious movement. It was a fateful alliance for Ali with a group that many consider something of a cult. Yet, for all its destructive aspects, its separatist tendency had value, for it promoted a sense of pride and the development of self-sufficiency.

Ali was later to leave the organization and embrace a more universalist and inclusive approach, both in his practice of Islam and in his politics. But that came too late to avoid the irreparable breach with his old friend, Joe Frazier.

Since Frazier's death, there has been plenty of comment about the fact that Philadelphia, which seeks champions every season in sport, never truly embraced a great and world renowned champion in its midst. And that, instead of a public memorialization of one of the greatest fighters of all time, it boasts a statue of a fictional fighter, one Rocky Balboa, as conceived and played by Sylvester Stallone.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke about Frazier as someone who, far from being an "Uncle Tom," was quick to help the civil rights movement. And he talked about the Rocky statue at the base of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

"Tell them Rocky was not a champion. Joe Frazier was," he said. "Tell them Rocky is fictitious, Joe was reality. Rocky's fists are frozen in stone. Joe's fists are smokin'. Rocky never faced Ali or Holmes or Foreman. Rocky never tasted his own blood. Champions are made in the ring not in the movies. There deserves to be a statue of Joe Frazier in downtown Philadelphia."

Incidentally, if you're among the handful of folks who aren't familiar with the Rocky movies, there are some spoilers here.

The statue came in the early '80s, when Stallone commissioned it for of Rocky III. The statue actually plays an important role in the film, signifying how big a deal the Rocky Balboa character has become in the universe of the film, and what a fall he has coming. And of course it memorializes one of the most famous moments in cinema, when Stallone as Rocky caps off his workout regime by dashing up the steps of the great museum.

The mayor of Philadelphia during most of the Frazier-Ali heyday and during the time of the first Rocky movie and its first sequel, a period from 1972 to 1980, was Frank Rizzo. Before that, Rizzo had been the Philadelphia police commissioner.

Widely regarded as a white backlash mayor, Rizzo -- a registered Democrat who backed Richard Nixon -- raided the Black Panthers and had a volatile relationship with the African American community.

In such a political cauldron, erecting a statue to a black man, even a black man who fought Muhammad Ali, could have been explosive, especially for Rizzo's political base.

This was also the era of "the great white hope" in boxing. The problem was that the white fighters weren't good enough to seriously challenge the very best black fighters.

Jerry Quarry, who's in the Boxing Hall of Fame, was blasted in two fights with Frazier and two fights with Ali, as well as a fight with Ken Norton, losing by technical knockout on each occasion. (Quarry died at age 53, his health ruined by pugilistic dementia.)

Stallone's Rocky Balboa character, pitted against the Ali-like Apollo Creed -- played with panache by former Oakland Raiders linebacker Carl Weathers, who was also memorable opposite former Stallone rival Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator -- plays into the great white hope dynamic. But he is more in ultimate underdog territory, with the Ali figure giving this unknown pug club fighter the fight as a shrewd populist promotional move.

In the first movie, an Academy Award-winner for best picture written by Stallone, who was then an unknown himself, Rocky shocks everyone by making a real fight of it, which was his only real goal, to "go the distance." He takes tremendous punishment a la Frazier, going all 15 rounds with the world heavyweight champion only to lose on a split decision.

In the sequel, he goes on to barely beat Apollo Creed and become the champion himself. In the process, he and Creed become friends, which plays out as the series continues, with Rocky increasingly involved with African American culture.

Frazier liked to point out that the scenes of Rocky working out by punching carcasses in a meat locker and by running the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, were both things that he did in real, as distinguished from reel, life. He escaped from the grinding poverty of rural South Carolina as a teenager, moving to Philadelphia as part of the second great migration from the South.

He did get a very highlighted cameo in the first Rocky picture, as you can see at the link (embedding is disabled for intellectual property reasons), but he wasn't happy about what he saw as the appropriation of key elements of his life story for a movie series celebrated with the statue in his home town that he didn't get.

Of course, Stallone, then an unknown actor conceiving his populist entertainment, wasn't prompted so much by Frazier's feats as he was by the story of journeyman Chuck Wepner, the white heavyweight champion of, er, New Jersey, who, like Rocky with Apollo Creed, "went the distance" for all 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali in 1975. Rocky, shot in only 28 days on a budget of less than $1 million, had its premiere not quite 35 years ago.

Movies have an important role to play in presenting cultural narratives, and Rocky, corny as it is, is also inspirational and down to earth, a reflection of how Philadelphians want themselves to be. The Rocky statue isn't a problem. What's a problem is ignoring the real life tale of courage that was right there in their midst.

When we only acknowledge the fantasy, desirable though it may be, and forget the nitty gritty reality, that's a problem.

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