Remembering Joe Frazier


by Sean Paul Ashley
Ugly as sin. Black as soot. Grim as death.
Strong as iron.
Give up?
Smokin’. Joe. Frazier.

This is his eulogy. After a moment of silence, call me a heretic because here’s some boxing blasphemy that’ll have fans lacing up gloves. Joe Frazier was the greatest. Without peer, bar none, and I’ll sign it, seal it, and send it to that pretty-boy Ali. With that gauntlet thrown, there’s bound to be blood.

Well hell, I’m spoiling for a fight.

Joe Frazier wasn’t the strongest boxer. George Foreman brought Frazier to his knees twice, pummeling him into bloody submission. Nor was he the fastest – Ali ran rings round him with jabs, jukes and jiving footwork unmatched in boxing. He certainly wasn’t the smartest. Crouched and bullish, Frazier shunned footwork and flair for an almost bovine tenacity, pummeling at close range, taking almost as good as he gave.

So, then – as I’m sure Ali aficionados are crowing – how is Joe Frazier the greatest? I’ll admit it. He didn’t have the speed, the strength, the smarts, or the showmanship.

Joe had the guts.

Walk with me for a moment. On November 7, 2011, Joe Frazier went down for the last time. On March 8, 1971, Ali went down for the first. It was the Fight of the Century.

“You can’t beat me Joe! Don’t you know I’m God?” screamed Ali, punctuating every word with a tattoo of blows. Rat-tat-tatting away at Frazier, Ali probably thought little of Frazier’s retort.

“Well God, you gonna get whupped tonight”.

15 rounds and 26 seconds in, 215 pounds of God was knocked to canvas like a ton of decidedly mundane bricks, and, like so, Joe Frazier won his first Heavyweight title.

Does one win make a fighter? No. Did Ali beat Frazier twice after? Yes.

But boxing isn’t about strength, speed, skill or stats. It’s about guts. And Joe had ‘em. Frazier was ice-cold under fire, bearing blows mental and physical. Ali, with that loudmouthed crassness that won him applause and antipathy in equal measure, made Frazier’s fearful frame into a figure of fun. But weathering schoolboy taunts of “clumsy” and “ugly” didn’t make Frazier great.

But blows of “Gorilla” “Uncle Tom” “White people’s champion”, bit deep.

With these racial taunts Ali transformed Joe Frazier. Ali, the comic, charismatic golden child of boxing, was pitted against a bête noire – literally a black beast, with ugly aggression to match his grimace and a race traitor to boot. Ali lambasted Frazier, who supported the Vietnam War, saying "He's the other type of Negro…Frazier's worse than [whites] to me… he works for the enemy." These blows were more devastating than any hook or uppercut.

Guts.

Frazier bore that burden with that same silent, stoic, hideous strength that made him a boxing titan. While Ali reveled in pugilistic pomp, circumstance and celebrity, Frazier always fought shy of applause and controversy. And Frazier’s tragedy is that of the black everyman. The fair-featured, light-complexion Ali showered Frazier with the same abuse borne by his poor sharecropper family in the Deep South, made all the more galling considering Ali’s comfortable childhood in middle-class Louisville.

Guts.

And he was equal to the burden. When Ali was stripped of his boxing license for draft evasion, Frazier petitioned President Nixon to reinstate it. When Ali fell on hard times, Frazier handed him cash. Yet it is Frazier who is remembered as the dumb beast in Ali’s shadow. Why? Because he was blacker, uglier, poorer, and, worst of all, dared to disregard the loud black posturing of the day. Ali was an icon, precisely because he was iconoclastic. And Frazier was just another dumb, poor black Joe.

And so he was. He was the black Joe whose fight wasn’t only in the ring. Joe paid the price of manhood in blood, tears, toil and sweat, and when he received slurs and derision he persevered.

I’ll stand by my words – Joe Frazier was the greatest. I’m not just talking about Frazier the boxer. I’m talking about Frazier the man. The bigger man, the man who punched burlap bags to hone his fists as a child.

The man who knocked down God.

Let us remember him in death as he was in life – bruised, bloodied, bowed but unbroken.

And, goddamn it, the Greatest.