Wednesday, November 9, 2011

No Smokin'

I recently had a chance to watch the documentaries, Thriller in Manila (2008) and Facing Ali (2009), both of which showed Joe Frazier as he looked in his prime against Muhammad Ali and as he looked only a few years before he succumbed to liver cancer on November 7. He was living in the building that houses the old gym where he trained in Philadelphia, still very much himself - quiet, proud, but embittered over what Ali said about him before their three fights, calling him an "Uncle Tom"* and a "gorilla".

It would be hard to name two great boxers who were less alike than Ali and Frazier. When they fought for the first time, in March 1971, I was twelve and I didn't like Ali because he was a braggart. I thought it was too much to be so successful at what one does and to brag about it. Of course, Ali's "trash talk" was as much for Ali's benefit as for his opponents'. Frazier was so hurt by Ali's remarks that, late in his life, he derived some satisfaction at Ali's being stricken with Parkinson's Disease. Ali's words to Frazier were clearly absurd, since they were both victims of racism. The film Facing Ali recounts how, when Frazier visited his mother in South Carolina in 1970, he went to a local bank to cash a check. The bank wouldn't cash it, despite Frazier being the heavyweight champion of the world.

When they fought for the first time, the fight was billed as "The Fight of the Century". My mother and big brother were routing for Ali. I bet them both $5 that Frazier would win. Thank you, Joe, for making me the winner that time.

*In Facing Ali, a Frazier friend comments that Joe didn't know what an "Uncle Tom" was. He thought Ali was saying he peeped in people's windows.

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