Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Joe Frazier: 1944-2011

Without Joe Frazier, there would have been no Muhammad Ali, at least not the Ali we know.

Oh, Ali would still have been a world heavyweight champion, adored by hundreds of millions. He still would have been an athlete of actual historic significance, for his Muslim faith and draft resistance. But we wouldn't know if Ali was The Greatest, or even a great fighter at all.

Nobody's a great fighter until the confront and surmount suffering and cruelty, and there has never been a fighter who brought the suffering like Smokin' Joe. He entered the ring to hurt opponents, and if he was hurt in the process, well, that's what they were getting paid for.

Three times Ali and Frazier entered the ring. The first time, Ali learned, much to his surprise, that he COULD be hurt. The second time, Ali reacted with a display of masterful and occasionally legal ring cunning to win the narrowest of split decisions. The third time...

The third time was the greatest fight of all time. Boxing being what it is, that means the Thrilla in Manila was also a horrible thing to happen to its participants. Ali and Frazier took each other to the physical and mental limits of suffering. Ali won, if you want to call it that. Both men were physically wrecked as fighters ever after, and eventually physically wrecked period for reaching the ultimate heights of their awful, captivating trade.

Frazier was wrecked psychologically as well. He never forgave Ali for the evil taunting prior to the Thrilla. Ali used mental cruelty as a weapon akin to his jab. It was just part of the business for him. Those who wax poetic about Ali's greatness tend to ignore how essential a part of that greatness cruelty was.

Frazier, an honest straightforward club fighter with a champion's ability, couldn't let the hatred go. It was very depressing to talk to him 20 years after that fight and realize he never would, and that the memories of that night in Manila would torture him until the grave he found yesterday.

Parkinson's disease, almost 100 percent surely brought on by taking far too many punches, has ruined Ali's body. That's sad. But he remains a soul at peace, content in the knowledge he's loved.

Frazier couldn't come to terms with getting beat by a man he'd come to hate, long after both were well away from their sport. One reason Frazier never got the adulation bath ex-champs usually receive is that he didn't let people dunk him. Talk boxing with Joe, and you never got past the 14th round and the cosmic injustice of it all.

That's sadder. But sadness is as much or more a part of boxing as spit and sweat. I'd go so far as to say it's the sadness in boxing that makes its occasional awful glory possible.

Sadness is over for Joe Frazier. There's still plenty of glory left. Hope he let himself feel some of it before the sadness ended.


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