Recalling Joe Frazier: An Appreciation, and a Note of Horror

The surprise death of former world heavyweight champ Joe Frazier reminds of the man's elemental greatness, and of the deep pitfalls of high-contact sport.

Frazier, who died unexpectedly of liver cancer on Monday, just two days after his illness was publicly revealed, was an ill-remembered legend. One of the most famous men on the planet in the '60s and '70s, he was one of the great figures of the so-called Golden Age of boxing, fighting epic battles with Muhammad Ali while faring much less well against George Foreman.

Today, boxing is a sport in decline, in no small measure because many of us can no longer enjoy it. But in Frazier's heyday, which coincided with that of the iconic Ali, it captivated people around the globe.

When I was growing up, football, baseball, and basketball were big, and what we Americans call soccer was big around the world, but the two biggest things in sport, at least as far as my young mind could make out, were the heavyweight champion of the world and the world's fastest human. I was taught the effective rudiments of fighting as a boy by my father, and later was trained to box in the Navy, but boxing was never going to be one of my sports. There were jokes even then about punch-drunk fighters, and losing IQ points by making a habit of getting hit in the head always seemed ill-advised.

Thriller in Manila is a very fine documentary on what may be the greatest heavyweight championship fight in history.

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.

Through a set of actions and confluence of events -- winning the heavyweight title at 22, converting to Islam, changing his name from Cassius Clay, refusing induction into the Army, opposing the Vietnam War, being stripped of his title, all amidst and helping drive the turbulence of the '60s -- Ali both bestrode global sport and transcended it. "He is the very spirit of the 20th century," wrote Norman Mailer, with no lack of portentousness.

It's a singular story, but it needed Joe Frazier to become truly epic, and tragic.

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, a bobber and weaver with a left hook like a combination bullwhip and battering ram, became the champion anyway, first by picking up a vacant boxing federation title, then by knocking out the winner of the replacement tournament to claim the other federation titles.

Ali, a master showman and provocateur, 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, even if in reality Frazier -- who grew up dirt poor in South Carolina -- had lived the poor and working class lives Ali never knew.

The right in those very divided days liked Joe Frazier because his name wasn't Ali. He wasn't a politician or a would-be icon of social change, he was a fighter.

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, an establishment figure, an "Uncle Tom." In so doing, he ignited a lasting enmity.

This fight drew a national closed-circuit TV audience and a worldwide television audience. Frank Sinatra couldn't get a ringside seat, so he came as a photographer for Life Magazine. Burt Lancaster was the color commentator for the TV broadcast. Diana Ross, Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, Barbara Streisand and more, all were on hand to see Ali regain the title he'd lost at the hands not of any athletic opponent, but a vengeful government.

It didn't happen. Joe Frazier won, in a unanimous decision. Even though I was for Ali, I thought Frazier won at the time, and thought so again when I watched the fight recently. In fact, you can watch the fight yourself, right here.

Ali, even though he was floored for the first time in his career in the final round, said he was robbed of the decision.

The two men fought twice more. Once after Frazier lost the championship to George Foreman, and once after Ali had at last regained his title by beating Foreman in "The Rumble in the Jungle," the classic 1974 fight in Zaire in which Ali lulled and tired Foreman with round after round of "rope-a-dope" before striking with a sudden knockout.

In January 1973, Frazier, who might be a cruiserweight today instead of a heavyweight, lost his title in Jamaica to the much bigger George Foreman, in yet another example of the importance of match-ups in sports.

Foreman was a bad match-up for Frazier. He was simply too tall, his arms too long, and he was massively powerful. Ali was also significantly taller than Frazier (who was only, by my reckoning, about 5-10, though he claimed 5-11 1/2), with longer reach, but not as much as Foreman and not generally the puncher Foreman was. Frazier-Foreman was force on force, and Foreman's force was greater. Superior will was not enough for Frazier, who was knocked down six times in two rounds before the fight was stopped.

Ali, who beat Frazier in a quieter second New York fight in January 1974, figured out how to beat Foreman, and did so in perhaps my favorite fight ever. I wrote about it here on the Huffington Post in early September 2010, as a metaphor for how Jerry Brown's race against billionaire Meg Whitman for the California governorship would play out.

But an end to the Ali-Frazier trilogy loomed, with Frazier wanting a shot at redemption. He got it on October 1st, 1975 in Manila, in a spectacular staged by Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos to distract Filipinos from massive social unrest.

I was in Rome when the "Thrilla in Manila," as Ali dubbed it, the better to dub Frazier "the gorilla," went down, and the fascination was just as big there as it was in the States or anywhere else. It was one of the first global satellite broadcasts, the fight staged on a muggy, ultra-hot Manila morning for an international viewing audience.

This was arguably the greatest heavyweight fight of all time, and certainly one of the most terrible. Many words have been written about this, and the documentary here, Thriller in Manila, ably narrated by Liev Schreiber, provides an excellent rendition.

It was exciting and exhilarating, savage and horrifying, and in the end exhausting as the two warriors traded blows toe-to-toe in the ring, barely able to move.

"The Fight of the Century," Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier, March 8th, 1971 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Frazier, America's only gold medalist in boxing at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, fought nearly his entire professional career with very limited vision in one eye, a fact which was finally revealed in Thriller in Manila. Ali's blows shut down his vision in that eye and finally closed up his other eye, yet Frazier, nearly blind, fought on.

Finally, with one round to go, his trainer stopped the fight, over Frazier's vehement objections. Ironically, Ali himself was about to call it quits, as the documentary reveals.

It's too bad that the two corners didn't mutually end the fight, in the honorable draw that both men deserved.

The Thrilla in Manila was a monument to greatness, and a monument to folly. Ali described the experience as "the closest thing to dying." In my mind, watching the fight, sitting in Rome, it was hard not to realize that boxing was the contemporary equivalent of gladiator games.

The "Fight of the Century" was a battle, a great spectacle, freighted with the conflict of the 1960s. By 1975, with Saigon having just fallen, Nixon driven from office, and civil rights over, the sociopolitical context had greatly diminished. But the conflict remained. What remained was personal, and epic.

Both men should have retired after the fight, ruined as their once top-flight skills were by the tremendous beating they both took at each other's hands. Neither did, though Frazier, after a long rest, was persuaded by his second loss to Foreman nearly a year later. He did try a brief comeback in the early '80s, fighting one more bout, which ended in a draw (against an opponent now serving life in prison after a third strike conviction) before entering retirement permanently.

Unlike Frazier, Ali went on fighting, the never-ending show continuing until one day it did not, grinding to an ignominious halt.

In Ali's final ten bouts, during which he lost his heavyweight title to and won it back from the unfortunate Leon Spinks, Ali suffered three of the five defeats of his career. By the end -- which came just eight days after Frazier's abortive comeback -- it was very painful to watch.

Ali, once the epitome of physical grace and prowess, had trouble hopping on one foot, or even touching his nose. It was a harbinger of the full-blown Parkinson's disease to come. Still, he was certified to fight. The show must go on when there's big money to be made and when there are people to entertain, even if they're not quite as delighted as they once were.

Despite the physical problems that have stilled the espresso patter, Ali is a living icon, universally beloved, very wealthy, one of the most famous figures on the planet. Frazier, though in my opinion affected mentally from the pounding he took in the ring, got out in time to keep most of his faculties fully intact. His suffering to come was more of a mostly benign neglect. His incredible prowess spent, his stardom chewed up and spit out, celebrity culture moved on.

Joe Frazier wasn't forgotten, exactly, more ignored. He made various appearances and managed his old gym in a hardscrabble part of Philadelphia, living in a room upstairs.

With boxing in eclipse, football is king, at least in America. And it's shaping up as another set of gladiator games. More and more, we're seeing the effect of high impact on human anatomy, especially on the head.

The brilliant Hall of Fame San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young was forced to retire after repeated concussions in the late '90s, despite still being in his prime. He got out in time, and impresses as a broadcaster.

Today, former Cal star-turned-Detroit Lion Jahvid Best, a great high school sprinter who concentrated on football, is out after repeated concussions in college and now the pros. This weekend's big showdown between Stanford and Oregon is shadowed by the loss to concussion of star Stanford wide receiver Chris Owusu.

With retired pro football players repeatedly breaking down physically as they age, and with more knowledge about concussions being public, the folks running the game tinker with the rules. But the fact is that players are bigger and stronger than before, and just as fast. And they aren't playing touch football.

In a game of violent hits, and fans who relish a taste of that classic Ali-Frazier action every weekend, bad things are bound to happen.

The human brain just wasn't made to be repeatedly accelerated against a wall, which, having had a few concussions in my time, is what they are like.

But that's a present day problem.

Joe Frazier is a great gladiator who once belonged to us, till we forgot, as we tend to do, and now belongs to history.

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