HUNCHING HIS head down like a drill bit, Joe Frazier bored into the chests of his opponents until all you could see were flailing arms. Compared to the taller and more lithe Muhammad Ali, Frazier was a stout, bobbing piston. He was not elegant, but with the passage of time, and now his death this week at age 67, Frazier’s style came to seem far more symbolic of his time than he was ever given credit for.
Frazier was the boxing great who forever lived in the shadow of Ali, both athletically and culturally. While Muhammad Ali’s boasting fit a time when a new generation of black Americans were shouting for respect, Frazier’s relentless work ethic and life story remained representative of a black America that often worked its way out of Southern poverty by moving north to grind out a living. Asked by the Guardian newspaper in London about his life story, Frazier responded, “I know my destiny. I was born into animosity, bigotry, and hatred. We had water for white folks, and water for colored folks. White lines, black lines. I came from Beaufort in South Carolina and it was tougher than Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.’’
Frazier came from a massive sharecropping family, saying he was forced out into field work by the age of 7. After he moved to Philadelphia, one of his jobs was in a slaughterhouse, where his boxing bag was a hanging slab of meat. Frazier’s first trainer, Yank Durham, said many other boxers had more talent but none had more “dedication and strength.’’
But many people were never able to fully appreciate that dedication and strength. The story was always Ali-Frazier, rarely just Frazier. Frazier became heavyweight champion in the years after Ali was stripped of his championship in 1967 for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War. Still, many people never thought Frazier was a fully legitimate champion, even after he beat Ali in the first of their three classic fights.
While Ali’s antiwar stance drew praise from Martin Luther King Jr., who said in a sermon that you have to “admire his courage,’’ there were no such proclamations for Frazier.
Even Ali didn’t appreciate him, though Frazier loaned him money and asked President Nixon during a visit to the White House to give Ali his boxing license back. In an interview with British newspapers, Frazier said he told Nixon, “I want you to give Ali his license back. I want to beat him up for you.’’
If Ali was thankful for Frazier’s gesture for reinstatement, he sadly did not let on. Instead, in one of the grimmer parts of the Ali legacy, he heaped scorn on Frazier, criticism that would have been universally condemned if unleashed by a white boxer. Ali, taking full advantage of his cult status in the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s, called Frazier ugly, illiterate, a gorilla, an Uncle Tom, and a “white-man lover’’ who “works for the enemy.’’
Ali was so successful at the caricatures that a magazine headline once asked if Frazier was a white champion in black skin. The taunting was so painful that Frazier’s son, Marvis, once told the Guardian, “I used to get beat up every day at school by guys who would say, ‘Your dad’s a Tom.’ It was terrible.’’
For many years, Frazier was bitter about the name-calling, which was so unfair, given that his ethic was that of so many families who were too busy making ends meet to protest the war or march for civil rights. Ali might have been the loudest and necessary voice of a generation, but Frazier represented its critical piston, never stopping, never ceasing to strive, even under racist ridicule, even when the ridicule came from a black man. It was said the relationship between the two had softened in recent years, and in a statement this week, Ali said, “I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration.’’ It would have been better, for the legacy of both men, and for a fuller appreciation of the millions of people Frazier’s style represented, had the respect come much sooner.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.