My Grandparents, aunts, and uncles were all from Mississippi and Alabama. They were dark, scrappy, and very tough, each having a dignity and decorum that served as a mechanism to get them through an almost unendurable pain. Their lives revolved around the pool hall my grandmother ran for 28 years, and in that pool hall they developed a working knowledge of every aspect of sports culture. Because of radio (and later televised) broadcasts of boxing, they were inundated in the fight game the most. Their tastes were subtler than most sports bros-they had a basic outsider’s appreciation for the courage and decorum of the great Hispanic fighters of different eras-and would go into intimate details about technique, character, and the history of the sport. Also, to a person, none of them cared for Muhammad Ali.
Oh, they didn’t hate him. They could tell you why he was important, and would grant him his place as the greatest heavyweight to ever walk the face of the earth. They could not grant him any more than that, however, because they believed he-and a generation he embodied-granted them absolutely nothing. A part of Black Tacoma cultural networks for almost a generation, they were ushered out of polite company because of their distaste for the Mother’s Day riots of 1969. The Black Arts Movements of the time did nothing for my Uncle Moe, who was unwilling to give up his favorite white and Jewish writers and considered Amiri Baraka “Ezra Pound’s shoe shine boy”. The feminist movements that were in the Black Panthers were not there for my Grandmother and aunts, who had too sharp a tongue and too low a bullshit barometer to deal with the patriarchal dynamics of local chapters.
And when Ali found a handsome, dark skinned country boy to abuse, my grandparent’s, aunts and uncles’ saw a symbol of an America that hated them, a symbol as complex as Muhammad was for the rest of the world. They understood the horror of the Vietnam War. They admired Ali’s integrity in taking a pacifist stance and losing 3 and a half years of his prime for it. However, when Ali-in his comeback- took his racial traumas out on “Smokin” Joe Frazier, a noble champion who looked like them, did his job liked they did theirs, and came up from similar near-impossible circumstances, they felt like they were seeing the embodiment of a black revolution that had no use for them.
Being a fight fan of a different era, could I see the entire picture of Ali? Yeah. Was it considerably easier for me to do so? Yeah. Ali’s pathographers of recent vintage refuse to see what he meant for race relations and dignity as the first black athlete to have public pride in himself, his consciousness and his beauty. Almost every confident black person to walk the face of the earth owes him a debt for breaking doors down and being autonomous in his agency and financial dealings as a brand. Even in his most politically firebrand, his penchant for charity and kind works was legendary-there are more stories about this than I can count-and it was this streak of his that won over many people who didn’t like him.
Yet as the 40th anniversary of the “Thrilla in Manilla” has passed-the final act in Ali’s blood feud with Frazier, and the greatest drama in the memory of modern sports-I can’t help but think of my family a little bit. Joe Frazier doesn’t just hang like a ghost over Muhammad Ali, but over modern cultural studies as well. Ali’s public psychological abuse of Frazier (and the way much of America took it to heart), says as much about Black America’s self-hatred and the ignorance so many whites have of it as much as it does about sports trash talking. Frazier’s inabilities to accept Ali’s apologies led him to a bitterness that came close to insanity, and too much of White America’s rage toward Ali doesn’t mirror a valid critique but a fear of black people who aren’t docile. Yet a paraphrased quote (from Randall Jarrell in regards to T.S Eliot’s anti-semitism) rings true here: Muhammad Ali’s treatment of Joe Frazier can be explained, but it should never be explained away.
A sharecropper’s boy who worked in the slaughterhouse of Philadelphia, Frazier wasn’t boxing‘s greatest overachiever as much as he was the sport’s greatest force of will. Short, he cornered fighters with footwork that took relentless energy and effort. Stocky, he was the greatest infighter in the history of the division, getting in your chest, taking 2 or three punches to get within a close range and wear an opponent out with short, chopping shots to an opponent’s ribs. (In the outskirts of Julio Cesar Chavez’s Toluca training camp for his rematch with Meldrick Taylor, old men would come to me and say in broken English that they considered Frazier their honorary brother; a black heavyweight who fought like Ruben Olivares, a dynamite puncher and a brilliant featherweight champion before booze felled him.)
His weapon, though, was his left hook, the greatest weapon any fighter had in the history of the sport. It was the vertical equivalent of a Nureyev pirouette, something so physical, so seemingly out of body, yet so startlingly controlled that the sharp eye could no nothing but marvel at it. There have been other great left hooks, Ray Robinson’s was a thing of beauty, Bob Foster’s was compact and lighting quick, and Chavez was a master of the Gaucho, the angular punch that had an arc and effect of a scythe. Yet Frazier’s left hook was so startling because it seemed to come from half his body when he threw it. To throw it the right way, to not telegraph it or minimalize it’s power, you have to exert so much energy, and to see him land it to it’s effect is to witness something so kinetic on many levels.
All of Joe’s brilliance and class could not compete with two facts: that he was lived in early 70’s and that he wasn’t Ali. Joe could never be the lightning rod, revolutionary figure and symbol of an age and time that Muhammad was. He wasn’t the most important black man of his time, he was just a country boy. He might not have made political statements, but his life was a near embodiment of the southern black experience: hard working, church going, evoking the decency of a prototypical southern gentleman with almost all of his actions.
He was also a damn sight close to being his equal as a fighter, and Muhammad knew it. The only psychological advantage Ali felt he could have over him was to crack him mentally, calling him an uncle tom in their first fight, ignorant in their second, and a Gorilla in their dark, brutal third. The first fight was the arguably most climatic sporting event of the twentieth century, and it was also Frazier’s masterpiece as a fighter; where he imposed himself on the more skilled Ali by sheer tenacity and knocked him down with an iconic left hook. The second fight felt like a denouement: Frazier, brutally beaten by George Foreman a year before, fighting almost listlessly against a Muhammad in top shape and committed to a stick and move game plan
The third act, in my opinion, outdid Shakespeare. After his fistic masterpiece in outwitting George foreman on the ropes in Zaire, Ali had grown to be the most recognizable figure on the planet. He had also grown to be a bit of an asshole. Thinking ratcheted up trash talk would render an old Joe Frazier useless, Muhammad emotionally brutalized him more than any black man has ever brutalized another black man in the history of sport. “C’mon gorilla, we in Manilla… Joe Frazier is so ugly, his face should be donated to the museum of wildlife. (Holds gorilla toy) I got your conscience.” It isn’t just to say that those slurs aren’t tolerable now, they weren’t tolerable THEN and people knew it. Any case against Muhammad Ali as a saint should begin with them.
What those slurs also did was make Frazier go into that ring willing to kill him or die trying. Death is the subtext of the “Thrilla in Manilla”: Frazier taking an inhuman beating for the first 4 rounds, yet still madly there, possessed by a pain that passes understanding. Conscious of a 120 degree heat, Ali threw the hardest punches he ever threw in a fight, punches that would knock almost any lesser man, punches that would have knocked Frazier out if they were landed on him by any other fighter. And yet after round 5, after an out of shape Ali had spent all his energy trying to blast him out of the ring, Frazier started to put on his “smoke” that looked like it came out of the 9th level of hell. The hook that put Ali on his ass on the first fight- long, maximal, thrown from his hip and with all the force of his left side- Frazier lands several times in the middle rounds, and the result is as spectacular as much it is frightening.
And yet Ali, the defiant black ass Spartacus he was, refused to go anywhere. The drama of this fight between sport’s most charismatic warrior king and it’s maddest, most broken gladiator intensified and intensified, so much so that when Frazier’s eyes swelled and Ali proceeded to brutally beat him in the 13th and 14th rounds, Joe still refused to fall. This was the reason Eddie Futch (Frazier’s corner) stopped the fight. He was the first man to see that Frazier was actually willing to go to the grave for this, and stopped him before that became a probability.
One of the things that is most noticeable about Ali after the third Frazier fight is how he changed. The uglier edges of his politics almost completely vanished. His propensity for kind works- whether private acts people made public, fundraisers to build hospitals or humanitarian missions where he used his celebrity to rescue hostages- became so obvious that even the sports writers who used to hate him had to take notice. The Ali of Muhammad and Larry, Albert Maysles documentary about his fight with Larry Holmes, is a pure joy to watch, engaging in card tricks, hanging out with old friends and charming the hell out of anyone who came to his Deer Lake Training Camp. When- out of the blue- he has a tickle fight with his old business partner and, after being told that Holmes likes him, says “well I like him too”, you see everything his fans see when they think him to be one of the most decent men in to step into a ring.
Yet death, in its own way, hung about that movie and hung about that fight too, particularly when one notices Ali speaking with less than half of his mental capacity. The people in his camp talk lovingly about him, but their voices tell you they know he doesn’t have a chance in hell, that when they are speaking of him they are talking in elegiac terms. Holmes- who comes off as one of sport’s most unsung good guys in Maysles’ documentary- is almost apologetic toward Ali, having to psyche himself up but knowing too well of the former champions declining health. In clips present and past, he is cantankerous about the fight but wistful toward the man who first gave him a chance in boxing (as a sparring partner) and the man that- sadly- he had to brutally beat.
The tragedy of that fight wasn’t that Ali was a shell of his former greatness. It was that the fight completely finished his physical mind. The thing that certified his genius as a fighter- his toughness and will to take an inhuman amount of punishment- was the thing that eroded his beautiful cognitive skills. He took 400 punches (in 14 rounds) against Frazier in their third fight, 300 (in 15 rounds) against Ken Norton in their third fight and 300 (in 15 rounds) in his fight with Ernie Shavers the following year. After every one of those battles (and two tough scraps against Leon Spinks in 1978) it was obvious that there was less and less of him, so much so that people were as terrified for his fight with Holmes as they were for a sleeping man in front of an oncoming train.
On October 2, 1980 he took 280 punches from that train in the span of 10 rounds. He was supposed to earn 8 million dollars from it, but Don King stole a million of it in a paperwork hustle. Herbert Muhammad, the man who drained his money because he was bitter that Ali left his father’s NOI sect for a more progressive school of Islam, took a good deal of the rest. Holmes, who earned 2.5 million dollars for fight, was touched with less than 20 punches. After his victory, as a visibly shaken Howard Cosell was interviewing him, he wept like a child. After the fight, Ali never spoke in coherent paragraphs again.
This was the Ali I grew up with and it was not one of my grandparent’s, aunts, and uncles’. The Frazier I grew up with was a man eaten by his rage. Though Ali had apologized to him publicly, privately and in print, Joe continued to seethe, and when Ali became sick, Frazier’s glee descended into sheer darkness. Worse than that, it seemed like something that had destroyed his life. As Ali-even in his illness-was establishing a humanitarian center, writing a non-fiction book on religious tolerance and being a noble diplomat, Frazier was getting divorced, frittering away (as well as being cheated out of) his money, being arrested for domestic violence (once, according to his code, unthinkable), and preaching his hatred and glee over Ali’s fate to everyone who put a microphone in his face.
It was only when I got older, when I understood the world my grandparents, aunts and uncle’s lived in and what was taken away from them for their complex blackness- could I understood most of Frazier’s rage. Friend and Foe have a hard time talking about Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, and their story is not that one of just trash talking or an evil militant beating a good darkie. Instead, it is the story of a once very good man who was so deeply slandered, and so mentally broken on the biggest stages in this planet. I don’t know if the fact that they also fought the greatest fight in the history of civilization should be the lead or the side note to that tale.