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Joe Frazier, American Hero
© Jack Cashill
n March 8, 1971, my friends from grad school and I drove from Purdue in my yellow VW bug to watch a large screen presentation of the first Ali-Frazier fight.
Given the imperatives of student poverty, we headed not south to Indianapolis, which was forty miles closer, but north to Gary, which was five dollars cheaper.
The moment we walked into the theater, however, I understood what the others did not: five bucks or no, Gary was a mistake.
Other than the fifty or so guys sitting together in makeshift bleachers by the exit door, we were about the only white people in the joint.
Many times, before and since, I have found myself in venues with comparable ratios, but never one in which the racial tension was so raw and palpable.
Given their pro-Ali perspective, my friends thought of the small group of guys in the bleachers as “Mafiosi.” I thought of them as “hardhats.”
A popular phrase of the era, “hardhat” evoked an independent, illiberal, blue-collar patriotism. Unlike my friends, I knew these guys. I had grown up with their spiritual kin in the no-nonsense streets of Newark, New Jersey.
We identified with Joe. In June of 1957, thirteen-year-old Joe Frazier decided that he’d had enough of school. “The fact is I didn’t learn quick, and I didn’t learn easy,” recalls Frazier.
So he quit and went to work full time on a series of backbreaking jobs in and around Beaufort, South Carolina, jobs that helped make him the hard man he eventually became.
Compared to Beaufort, Muhammad Ali’s Louisville was an Eleanor Roosevelt garden party. “Let’s just say,” remembers Frazier of Beaufort, “that its attitudes had me wanting to leave there from the time I was a boy.”
When his father finally got his family a TV, Frazier began to sense “a world beyond Beaufort of comforts and joys.” This new TV America and the old South would soon conspire to propel Frazier northward.
One day, without fanfare, Frazier packed his bags, headed down to the Greyhound station, and bought a one-way ticket for New York on the “the dog.”
“It was 1959,” Frazier recalls. “I was fifteen years old and on my own.”
Upon arriving in Philadelphia, Frazier got a job at the slaughterhouse. Although the job paid well enough, he “hated being ordinary.”
At seventeen, he spied a glimpse of a larger destiny at a boxing gym, this one run by the police. By the age of twenty, he had won the Olympic heavyweight championship in 1964.
This carcass-punching, street-running, Rocky-like figure should have been the toast of Philadelphia, but he never was. Ali saw to that.
In a divided nation, Ali had assigned an unlikely role to Frazier, that of traitor to his race and titular leader of the forces of reaction.
With his greater rhetorical skills and his access to a media attracted by Ali’s anti-war stance, Ali painted Frazier into a corner.
“Anybody black who thinks Frazier can whup me is an Uncle Tom,” said Ali at the time. “Everybody who’s black wants me to keep on winning.”
Moved to anger by the media and Ali, the hardcore faithful threatened Frazier and his family by mail and phone. The police put a watch on Frazier, his wife, and his children. History had proven that Ali’s Muslim colleagues were capable of killing.
Even in Philadelphia, the black community turned against the imagined race-traitor, Frazier. Schoolmates teased his son, Marvis, that his father was an Uncle Tom.
The taunting of his children cut deepest of all. “[Ali] set out to cut me down, and hurt me,” wrote Frazier in his autobiography, “the only way he knew how—with his lying, jiving mouth.”
The irony, of course, is that in almost every meaningful way, Joe Frazier led a “blacker” life than Ali. Most obviously, Frazier was conspicuously darker. He had proud Gullah roots, a black manager and trainer, and an integrated management team.
“I grew up like the black man—he didn’t,” Frazier would tell Sports Illustrated’s William Nack. “I cooked the liquor. I cut the wood. I worked the farm. I lived in the ghetto. Yes, I tommed; when he asked me to help him get a license, I tommed for him. For him!”
The irony stung. “He had a white man in the corner and those rich plantation people to fund him,” Frazier wrote bitterly of Ali. “A white lawyer kept him out of jail. And he’s going to Uncle Tom me?”
Ali and his supporters abused the people who pulled for Joe Frazier even more than they abused Frazier himself. Fight manager Dave Wolf watched Ali on TV one night with Frazier.
“The only people rooting for Joe Frazier,” he remembers Ali saying, “are white people in suits, Alabama sheriffs, and members of the Ku Klux Klan.” Enraged, Frazier smashed his fist mutely into his hand as he watched. Says Wolf, “It was cruel. That’s all.”
That night in 1971, in Gary and beyond, no fight had so racially polarized America since Jack Johnson squared off against Jim Jeffries in Reno sixty years earlier.
This, I thought, is what Ali had wrought. He had the crowd not so much pulling for him as against the imagined race traitor, Joe Frazier, and anyone, black or white, who dared cheer for him.
Gary, that night, was a cauldron of hate, a harrowing, volatile place to be. Still, the fight proved to be worth the risk. It was both brutal and brilliant as only great fights can be. Going into the fifteenth, it seemed to all of us too close to call.
“OK,” I said to my friends between rounds, “we’re out of here.” They thought me daft and resisted. I explained patiently that if Ali lost a fight that the crowd expected him to win, there would be hell to pay, and we’d likely do the paying. “But we’re for Ali,” they protested.
How had it come to this? I wondered. How could so many seemingly smart young Americans be so utterly delusional?
In the years that followed, equally smart young intellectuals would routinely sing Ali’s praises not just as a boxer, but as a man of conscience, a peacemaker, a racial healer, a Mandela, a Gandhi—much of it total nonsense.
All but alone in his public dissent, Joe Frazier insisted otherwise. “What has he done so great for this world?” he asked rhetorically of Ali. “Everything that he has done was against this country.”
What Ali did, great or otherwise, was to channel the liberal imagination. What Joe Frazier did was capture the hearts of working class people who cared about boxing.
Frazier deserved much better than the media ever game him. Here is hoping he has found in death the peace that eluded him in life—save, of course, for that classic moment in the fifteenth round when he knocked Ali clean off his feet and claimed the heavyweight championship of the world.
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