The passing of legendary boxer Joe Frazier from liver cancer at the age of 67 brought back a flood of memories. I have written previously about my love for boxing and my recent disenchantment with the sport. Frazier and Ali, however, ruled the heavyweight division during a time when the sport was in its ascendency and I was an unrepentant fan. Still, in hindsight, I did not give Frazier’s career the singular attention and appreciation it deserved. This is due to the fact that for me, as was the case for many others of my generation, his career always was linked with Muhammad Ali’s and was somewhat overshadowed by that association. Their three matches rank among the top rivalries in boxing history. Those classic bouts also epitomize the best of the sport. In retrospect, however, they are marred by the vicious verbal assault on Frazier conducted by Ali out of the ring in front of the cameras. Labeling him an Uncle Tom, Ali went far beyond the usual verbal jousting associated with fight hype. Frazier was no Uncle Tom, no great white hope. He was a man of great integrity who stood up and protested after the WBA stripped Ali of his title by refusing to participate in the WBA elimination tournament for Ali’s vacated belt. It was only after the perfectly dubbed “Thrilla in Manila,” their third and final fight, that Ali apologized to Marvis, Frazier’s son, for his taunts and name calling. He never apologized directly to Frazier, but the two men did achieve a rapprochement in later years.
I also can’t help but recall Frazier’s fateful first meeting with George Foreman in Jamaica, in 1973. In that bout the nearly invincible and previously undefeated Frazier looked like a helpless punching bag under Foreman’s devastating blows. Frazier landed on the canvas six times before referee Arthur Mercante stopped the fight. Their second match in 1976 was no better. Frazier went down twice, the second time from a monstrous left hook that lifted him off his feet and sent him crashing to the floor.
Frazier’s first fight with Ali, however, looms largest in my mind. Ali had just been reinstated after a three year suspension from boxing for refusing to kill Vietnamese people on behalf of the United States government (“No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger“). This much anticipated fight at Madison Square Garden was the first time two undefeated heavyweight champions would meet in the ring. As such, it was dubbed the “Fight of the Century.” For my generation it took on a much larger meaning because it marked the return of a hero of the black liberation struggle to boxing. The ring, in our minds, was merely the staging ground for a battle that was being fought nationwide: black power versus white supremacy. Unfortunately for Frazier, the forces of history being what they were at the time, he could not escape the role he was unwittingly cast to play that eventful evening.
I was in New York that week in March 1971. I had traveled there to attend one of the most amazing gatherings of black poets that I can recall ever taking place. The “Black Spirits Poetry Festival” was held at the Apollo Theater and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). It featured Sonia Sanchez, Don L. Lee (Haki Madhabuti), Carolyn Rogers, Larry Neal, the Last Poets (Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, Umar Bin Hassan, and Abiodun Oyewole, and percussionist Nilaja Obabi), David Henderson, Clarence Major, the Original Last Poets (Felipe Luciano, Gylan Kain, and David Nelson), Nikki Giovanni, Quincy Troupe, and many other leading figures in the Black Arts Movement. I remember running into Nikki Giovanni in the BAM lobby before the program. She asked me if I wanted to read. I was both surprised by the invitation and totally unprepared for the occasion. Painfully shy, too, in those days, I declined her offer to get me on the roster. It is a decision I regret to this day.
During that week I also went to see Panamanian-born saxophonist Carlos Garnett at The East, a legendary jazz club in Bed-Sty; drummer Elvin Jones, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and saxophonist Joe Farrell at the Village Gate; pianist Billy Taylor at a club I can’t recall; and took a side trip to see Amiri Baraka at Spirit House, the cultural center he had established in Newark, his hometown. By the time fight night came around I was broke. I was staying in Brooklyn with my friend Mickey Smith and didn’t have enough cash left to go to Madison Square Garden to attend the “Fight of the Century.” Instead I sat in Mickey’s kitchen, listened to the broadcast on the radio, and waited for what I was sure would be Ali’s inevitable victory. It didn’t take long before it became clear the fight was not one that Ali could dominate. Still I hung in there round after round, a true believer, hoping for a miracle that never came. In the fifteenth round Frazier scored a decisive knockdown and won the match with a unanimous decision. I was devastated. Ali had been beat by the man who would prove to be his fiercest competitor.
Long Live Smokin’ Joe!
For more information on the life and career of the great champion and human being, Joe Frazier, see the NY Times article by Dave Anderson linked below.
And this NY Times obituary of Frazier by Richard Goldstein.