In death, Joe Frazier finally gets some separation
LOS ANGELES — You wonder if, in those last moments before he died, Joe Frazier felt one last sting of defeat, knowing Muhammad Ali would outlive him.
Their trilogy of heavyweight boxing matches ended 36 years ago, but they never left Frazier's frontal lobe. As writer Erik Brady of USA Today put it so nicely in a 2009 story, Frazier and Ali are forever "joined at the arthritic hip."
In death, Smokin' Joe may finally receive a measure of the positive attention he always felt was stolen from him by Ali, a man he lost to twice in three matches and always claimed, "I whupped him three times."
If time heals all, it missed on Frazier.
For years, sportswriters have been tromping to Frazier's gym in Philadelphia. Sometimes, it was for stories on anniversary dates of that first fight in 1971, and Ali's first loss. Or their Madison Square Garden rematch and Ali's 12-round decision in 1974. Or, the ultimate boxing moment, the 1975 "Thrilla in Manila," when a brutally battered Frazier, both eyes virtually shut, wanted to come out for the last round and wasn't allowed to by his trainer, Eddie Futch.
The stories the writers sought were about Frazier, but no story about Frazier could be without Ali. It wasn't just the two losses that never worked their way out of Frazier's psyche. It was the treatment and image-building that Ali imposed on him. It is one thing to create your own legacy, fully another to have somebody else do it for you.
Ali labeled Frazier an "Uncle Tom." His frequent pre-fight remarks, likely meant more as hype than harm, created and perpetuated the image of a dull, plodding Frazier. Ali's image-building made him the smart one, the clever tactician, the quick-with-a-quip and quick-on-his-feet boxer to whom the press gravitated. Ali was always the story. Frazier was always the other guy.
Frazier's anger over this never really went away. Reporters didn't have to prompt him to talk about Ali. He quickly went there himself. The bitterness even took on, for Frazier, the sad dimension of him publicly theorizing that Ali's current health problems with Parkinson's and dementia are some sort of higher-being payback for what Ali did to him.
Frazier finished a heavyweight boxing career with a record of 32-4-1. He lost twice to Ali and twice to George Foreman. Even against Foreman, his luck in the area of image-building was lacking. Defending his title in 1973 in Kingston, Jamaica, Frazier got caught by a Foreman right hand early in the fight and the celebrity broadcaster ringside gave the classic call that has echoed through boxing ever since.
"Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!"
It was Howard Cosell at his best, or worst, depending on your broadcasting tastes. But it stuck. A broadcasting legend, by his stylishly excessive verbosity, had furthered the image and memory of Joe Frazier as a losing fighter.
When Ali was seeking a license to box after being banned for his religious stance on Vietnam, Frazier supported him. When they were to fight, Frazier said they got together and talked about how they'd promote the fight.
"Then he go out and start calling me an Uncle Tom," Frazier said.
Witness to all this was Bob Arum, chief executive of Top Rank Boxing and Ali's lawyer and promoter during the Ali-Frazier trilogy.
"Frazier was always afflicted with Ali," Arum said Tuesday. "He offended him tremendously. But when Ali wasn't allowed to fight, Frazier kept after me to help Ali get his license back. He supported him. He never even treated me badly, even though I was with Ali.
"He was just a man. There was nothing artificial about him."
And so, in death, perhaps a better reading of the real Joe Frazier finds life.
Don King, the legendary promoter, said, "He was a great gladiator."
Angelo Dundee, Ali's trainer during the trilogy, said, "When Frazier fought, it was always exciting."
Champion light-heavyweight Bernard Hopkins said, "There will only be one Smokin' Joe Frazier."
But it is left to Foreman, fast becoming the poet laureate of boxing — maybe of all sports — to summarize best who and what Joe Frazier was.
"His fighting style was his way of life," Foreman said Tuesday. "He would not back down from King Kong. I once knocked Joe down six times, and when the fight was over (and the referee was signaling its end) he was on his feet, looking for me.
"You can talk about Joe Louis, or Ali, or even me. But the fact is, there is only one, common, ordinary Joe, and he is the one-and-only Joe Frazier."
Foreman talked about the usual celebrity, and how Frazier wasn't it.
"They have one hello for the rich and a goodbye for the poor," Foreman said. "That was not the case with Smokin' Joe Frazier."
Frazier was inducted into Boxing's International Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., in 1990. As the tributes poured in Tuesday, flags there flew at half-mast.
Oh, yes. There was also a statement issued from Ali. It won't run here.
This time, the last word goes to Joe Frazier.