Relentless, overused and indeed clichéd, but “Smokin’” is the most suitable word to describe Smokin’ Joe Frazier in the boxing ring. The fighter, who passed away on Nov. 7 at the age of 67, nearly two months after being diagnosed with liver cancer, was never big for a heavyweight, especially by today’s standards, and at 5 feet 11 inches had an average weight of around 205 pounds. It was his aggressive style when fighting, coming forward, ducking under his opponents’ punches, either shooting a stiff jab or letting go with his signature left hook, that was feared by opponents and lauded by spectators.
That aggression and heart, the tendency to pick himself up, is on display against the intimidating, lumbering and muscled George Foreman, one of the hardest punchers in the history of the sport, after Foreman had knocked Frazier down five times. Frazier still stalked, ducking, shooting the jab and letting go with his left hook. In the end it was his corner that threw in the towel, knowing that Frazier would rise again and again, to his detriment, until being knocked unconscious. In his own words, “You can map out a fight plan or a life plan, but when the action starts, it may not go the way you planned, and you're down to your reflexes -- that means your [preparation]. That's where your roadwork shows. If you cheated on that in the dark of the morning, well, you're going to get found out now, under the bright lights,” he displays his will. (sports.yahoo.com, Nov. 8)
He is the fighter who first defeated Muhammad Ali, known as “the Greatest” for his accomplishments in the ring and out of it; the fighter who did not fear getting back into the ring with George Foreman after Foreman knocked him out in the second round. And, ultimately, when it comes to his fighting career, he will forever be linked to Ali, for being his foil and toughest opponent for their first battle, the fight of the millennium and “the Thrilla in Manila,” which Ali said was the closest thing to death. In the Manila fight, legendary trainer Eddie Futch, who passed away in 2001, had to stop the fight in the 14th round because both of Frazier’s eyes were swollen shut -- nevertheless, Frazier still wished to continue and had to be saved from his instincts.
It is near to impossible to think about Joe Frazier without considering Ali. And, despite all the battles Ali engaged in, outside of the ring as well, the same can be said for Ali. They will forever be linked in the fight game because of their differing stances. Joe Frazier was courted by elements who hated Ali’s stance on the Vietnam War and his brave and righteous refusal to be drafted. These same elements despised the Black Liberation struggle, the entire progressive, revolutionary and militant struggles happening in the U.S. and around the world. They wanted Frazier to be Ali’s cultural foil as well as his opponent in the ring, a symbol of their ideals. In a sense, these “pro-American” establishment types who wanted things to remain the same, though history dictates change is constant, wanted Frazier to be “the good one.” Unfortunately Frazier accommodated.
Where did these seemingly contradictory responses come from? Frazier’s relentless ferocity in the ring; the tendency to never give in, and his willingness to accommodate, be wooed and succumb to backward opportunists who most likely despised him?
A person is not formed by one moment, though a moment may come to define her or him; personality and tendencies, however, under circumstances are formed through life and real conditions.
A struggle to escape poverty, racism
Joe Frazier grew up poor in Beaufort, S.C., one of 13 children. He reportedly left home at 15 because he couldn’t abide by the rules of the Deep South in the 1950s. Joe was big, stocky and a protector of weaker people from bigger bullies. His left arm was injured while tending to a large hog his family owned and was left permanently crooked, or cocked in the hook position. It was his inability to cower to a white man on whose farm he worked that led to his decision and his family’s to send him north. After working for Coca-Cola loading trucks and on a work crew building Parris Island, the Marine base, Joe boarded a bus for New York to live with an older brother.
It is in the North where his amateur career as a fighter began; a career that would see him win an Olympic gold medal in 1964. His gold medal win inspired others to invest in his professional future, which would allow him to train and fight full time.
Frazier’s only training before going to New York was hitting a burlap sack that he filled with Spanish moss, a brick in the middle and other ingredients.
Fifteen years old is considered late to start training in boxing. Though it is the hurt business, boxing, even for the crudest fighter, requires finesse. The foot work, timing, proper punching technique, how to get under a hook and get the proper leverage, discovering your fighting style -- all these things take time and so many begin at an early age.
Frazier may have been a natural or his upbringing made him the perfect student. The ring gave him the opportunity to display his aggression.
It has been suggested that Frazier considered Ali to be a bully, and the man who protected smaller people when he was younger and in Beaufort hated bullies. They were friends. Frazier helped Ali financially after Ali was banned from boxing. Frazier could have ignored Ali all together and didn’t have to fight him. But they did and the rest, as is said, is history.
Frazier taunted Ali for refusing to fight in Vietnam. Frazier claimed to love his country and accepted an invitation to speak to the South Carolina state Legislature after having defeated Ali in 1971, basking in front of a Confederate flag. South Carolina didn’t remove that flag until 2000 after mass pressure from the Black masses.
His accommodating and accepting the role as “the good one,” was part show and part real. He was most likely hurt by Ali’s taunts and he partly wanted acceptance. He certainly is not the only person to have been naive, and a person can only play a role so long before becoming that which they pretend to be. Social forces pulled him in, and his circumstances of growing up in poverty in the racist South helped to form him along with the people he was surrounded by.
Things change. The sweep of history dictated that Ali would have to be accommodated by mainstream society. The man who bravely stood as a symbol of defiance, who was lauded by the Black Liberation movement and who risked it all because he followed his social conscience is widely considered “the Greatest” because of his feats. Joe Frazier died poor and for many years lived above his boxing gym. He seemingly lived in Ali’s shadow, and the media depicted him as bitter and hateful, yet in the documentary “Facing Ali,” Frazier did praise him and his abilities.
Philadelphia would build a statue, not of the man who made the city his adopted home and who is revered by the many fighters who come from the place that produced so many that it has its own style, but of a fictional white fighter, Rocky Balboa.
Joe Frazier, though, was the Champ, a workman-like fighter who embodies all the qualities of the toiling Black, all the oppressed and working masses. He refused to quit, wouldn’t give in and despite his contradictions, was as Ali said, “a great champion.”
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