Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Joe Frazier, R.I.P.

One of the problems with growing old is that the icons of your youth grow old as well, and die, and every time it happens a piece of your youth dies as well, and in the end it reminds you - all of us - of our own mortality.

"The Fight of the Century," as it was called, was one of the seminal sporting events of my young life. It was March 8, 1971, and I was ten years old. It was Joe Frazier vs. Muhammad Ali, and boxing was only part of what it was all about.

It's difficult to explain it to someone who wasn't alive at the time or (in the case of my wife) wasn't into sports, what an event it was. In my 5th grade class we discussed it animatedly, all of us aware of how high the stakes really were. I ran across this description from Yahoo! Sports, and I think it summarizes the atmosphere about as much as anything can:

The occasion itself transcended sports. The buildup to the fight was a cultural phenomenon, splitting America (beyond those who were already fans of either fighter) into two factions: the pro-establishment, pro-war camp rooting for Frazier, and the countercultural, anti-war group pulling for Ali, who was stripped of the heavyweight title and his boxing license in 1967—at the height of the Vietnam War—for refusing to be inducted into the U.S. Army.

It was an iconic event in American history, on a level that could never be approached by any other combat sport. The who's who—from Rat Pack member Frank Sinatra, who served as a photographer that evening for Life magazine, to New York Knicks guard Walt "Clyde" Frazier—were at the Garden to witness Frazier's epic battle with Ali in the flesh.
At least that begins to describe it. Burt Lancaster was one of the announcers on the closed-circuit broadcast, and the artist LeRoy Neiman painted the men as they fought. Everybody who was anybody was there, in the arena that thought of itself as the Center of the World, Madison Square Garden.

There was a deep aura of mystery about the event. There was no home television, so if you wanted to see the fight you had to go to a movie theater and plunk down your money (an early form of pay-per-view). There was no radio, either - only a round-by-round summary that was read from the studio after each round ended. I don't remember the host of that radio broadcast, only that the commentator was the former champion, Floyd Patterson, who refused to call Ali anything other than his given name, Cassius Clay.

And that was part of it too, of course. Ali was a tremendously controversial man, not the beloved figure remembered today through a gauzy film.  He was arrogant and taunted his opponents with a blistering, almost dehumanizing cruelty.  (Called, by writer Tex Maule, a "barbarous display of cruelty.") The memorable 1996 ceremony in which his "lost" Olympic gold medal was replaced, happened in the first place because he had thrown the original in the river after refusing to fight in the Vietnam War.  And there was his association with the Nation of Islam, which resulted in his 1965 title rematch with Sonny Liston being moved from Boston to Lewiston, ME.  (I've been in Lewiston; trust me, you don't hold a heavyweight title fight there just for the fun of it.) 

Patterson called him Clay, and so did many others, as did my mother, who disliked Ali and what he stood for intensely.  I recall us staying up late into the night, far past my bedtime, listening to the summaries on the radio as they were presented, her keeping score by using one of the pages of advertising from the TV Guide (the middle section that was from the Columbia Record Club, I believe), marking down an "F" for each round Frazier won, and a "C" for those won by Ali.  The fight was, everyone supposed, a cliffhanger, and Frazier's 15th round knockdown of Ali figured to be the decisive blow.  It wasn't; Frazier had a big enough lead to have won anyway, but the image of Ali on his back, the tassels of his shoes flying, was imprinted on one's memory.

I didn't know much about Joe Frazier prior to that night, but I was thrilled that he'd beaten the hated Ali (or "Cassius Clod," as one talk show host referred to him), and I was tremendously impressed by the dignity with which he conducted himself in the face of Ali's caterwauling bluster.  From then on Frazier became my favorite fighter, through a couple more title defenses until he was shockingly knocked out by the surly young George Foreman (years before Foreman himself would become a loveable hero).  There was another Frazier-Ali bout, which Ali won, and then the "Thrilla in Manila," in which Ali, now the champ, defeated him once again, a result that left me as bitter and disappointed as had ever any sporting event.)

Frazier was never the same after that fight (nor, for that matter, was Ali).  And for a good while, he never received the credit due him - for being the first man to beat Ali, for being a powerful and proud heavyweight champion.  It was easy to be overshadowed by Ali, especially as his bravado became more and more the mainstream in professional sports.  And then there was that embarrassing episode on SuperStars where he almost drowned during a swimming competition - that didn't help much either.  But he kept on, fighting for a few more years until he was beaten once again by Foreman, in a bout between two former champs now on the has-been trail (or so it seemed for Foreman).  He started a second career as a singer, and made a hilarious commercial for Miller Lite.

And eventually, people came to appreciate that Joe Frazier was a great champion, and a man who'd handled his fame and career with grace.  There was widespread shock last week at the news that he was suffering from liver cancer and hadn't long to live, and when he died Monday night at the age of 67, there was a heartfelt outpouring of grief, including statements from Ali and Foreman, his two biggest rivals.

I realize that much of this seems to have been a celebration of Joe Frazier more for who he wasn't than for who he was, but sometimes that's how you measure a man.  And lest we forget, today people warmly remember Smokin' Joe Frazier as a man who, through it all, never lost sight of what it meant to be a champ.
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