He was a Philly guy through and through, but New Yorkers are anti-parochial when it comes to respecting a superior talent who combines exquisite skill with maniacal desire to persevere in the face of disaster. New Yorkers respected, if not loved, Joe Frazier, who died at age 67 on Monday night in Philadelphia, KO'd by liver cancer.
Frazier was that sort of guy. You only had to watch a round of the guy in action in one of his three battles with Muhammad Ali to know he epitomized the concept of the prizefighter as a resolute warrior who is willing, beyond what would be accepted by any mortal soul, to taste pain and punishment in exchange for a chance at doling it out, and achieving victory.
He could be as ruthless with his word choice as he was with that left hook. In his 1996 autobiography he wrote this of Ali, who directed infamous insults and racial taunts toward Frazier in the '70s: "Truth is, I'd like to rumble with that sucker again -- beat him up piece by piece and mail him back to Jesus. ... Now people ask me if I feel bad for him, now that things aren't going so well for him. Nope. I don't. Fact is, I don't give a damn. They want me to love him, but I'll open up the graveyard and bury his ass when the Lord chooses to take him."
Frazier wasn't much for forgive and forget. But that trait is closely tied to the stubbornness he showed in the ring, when he'd bob and weave -- he was as active with his torso in defense as any fighter you'll see -- and eat a few jabs on the way in while looking to unload his bomb, his jawbreaker left hook.
It was a package deal with Joe, and if you got that, it was easier to understand and forgive comments like, "It would have been a good thing if he would have lit the torch and fallen in. If I had the chance, I would have pushed him in" after Ali made the world cry when he lit the Olympic flame prior to the opening of the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
There is a tendency, an overwhelming one, for writers and analysts to present the best face of the man who dies. They steer clear, much of the time, of the negative bullet points on the life's résumé. It isn't honest journalism, and it's something I've never understood, as the person in question cannot be offended. Of course, there are friends and family to consider, during a fragile time; of course consideration should be given to them. But to properly put a man's life in context, it is disingenuous to gloss over the behavior that kept Frazier from approaching the sainthood that Ali enjoys.
He was what he was. An athlete who showed stunning resolve in times when most men would crumple in a heap. And yes, when he said stuff about Ali like, "He's got Joe Frazier-itis. He's got left-hook-itis," his reputation took a hit.
But maybe that was undeserved. Frazier, while Ali was in exile for refusing induction into the armed services, loaned Ali cash on a couple occasion. And Ali paid him back by going over the line from trash talking to careless character assassination when he called Frazier an "Uncle Tom" and tried to lobby blacks to see him as a water carrier for whites.
Knowing that, does it not make you better understand Frazier's frustration and his callous outbursts?
Ali often gets a free pass for his trash talking, as people will argue he was simply doing it to sell tickets. But when the arena was already sold out, was there still a need to say, "Ninety-eight percent of my people are for me. They identify with my struggle. ... If I win, they win. I lose, they lose. Anybody black who thinks Frazier can whup me is an Uncle Tom"? There was not.
New Yorkers pride themselves on telling it like it is, dispensing truth when maybe conventional wisdom calls for something else. For that reason, Joe Frazier probably had a few more fans in NYC than he did in some other regions, where civility 24/7 is the preferred default setting.