Commentary

Joe Frazier defined himself early in life

His closest friends and foes say goodbye on Monday in a private ceremony.

Originally Published: November 14, 2011
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

The man is dead now, and there's a part of the hagiography that stubbornly lives on that's a lie. Even in his own obits, Joe Frazier, who died last Monday at the age of 67, just a few weeks after being diagnosed with liver cancer, is still being outshone and having his life refracted through the infinitely more captivating Muhammad Ali. But Muhammad Ali didn't "make" Frazier -- at least not in the most significant way, not if you're talking about what it means to be a man, or, more precisely, a black man coming of age in 1960s and 1970s America. And Ali never did break Joe Frazier, either.

Frazier's ability to retain his indomitable sense of self played out on a far more personal stage than Ali's pageant of a life did, and it wasn't as universally appreciated by a general public caught up in deifying Ali even after Ali lit out after Frazier with the sort of demeaning personal and racial insults ("gorilla … ugly … ignorant Uncle Tom") that wouldn't be tolerated in public utterances today. But maintaining that sense of self was an even more remarkable feat after Frazier's win in their 1971 "Fight of the Century" at Madison Square Garden, or Ali's famous characterization of the beating he barely survived against Frazier in their 1975 Thrilla in Manila.

[+] EnlargeJoe Frazier
AP Photo/FileJoe Frazier went to the 1964 Olympics as an alternate, then beat Hans Huber for the gold medal.

Ali famously called it, "The closest thing to dying that I know."

"We went to Manila as champions, Joe and me, and we came back as old men," Ali told Sports Illustrated's great boxing writer, Mark Kram. (If you've never read Kram's unforgettable account of that fight, do yourself a favor. Click here. Now. )

They'll hold a private funeral service for him in Philadelphia this Monday, and Ali is supposed to be there. But, again, if you really want to know who Smokin' Joe Frazier was, it's important to go beyond the way his career was linked and told through Ali, and search for those corners of his life where he asserted how much he was his own man. Because that informed that ferocious determination and almost masochistic disregard for pain he was able to bring to that brutal trilogy of fights against Ali, too, especially after Ali started demeaning him as some inferior.

"The noisier he got, the meaner I got," Frazier said.

What's been almost uniformly lost in all the recounting of their ring wars is how Frazier had a creation story too. And it was also forged by their social and racial times. As Frazier later wrote in his 1996 autobiography, he grew up in plantation country, Beaufort, S.C., the 12th child of sharecroppers named Rubin and Dolly. The incident that sparked his interest in being a fighter happened after his father bought a black-and-white TV and, while watching one of Joe Louis' fights among the usual large gathering of family and friends, an uncle remarked that young Frazier could be the second coming of Louis one day.

Louis was the black community's heroic stand-in against racial oppression and white men's claims of innate supremacy years before Ali ever came along, and after hearing his uncle compare him to such a venerated man, Frazier got an old burlap sack. He stuffed it with rags and corn cobs and Spanish moss, hung it over a tree limb in the farm yard, and began training on his homemade heavy bag day after day, wrapping his hands with whatever he could find. Even that famous left hook of his has a back story: He broke his elbow as a kid fleeing a runaway bull hog, and could never completely straighten it again.

[+] EnlargeEddie Futch
AP Photo/Bill IngrahamTrainer Eddie Futch wraps Joe Frazier's hands in 1964.

Nowadays, most everyone knows Ali famously stood up to the draft board rather than go to war in Vietnam. But Frazier's first significant stand? He was just 14, and it came against a white farm boss named Bellamy, who was threatening to whip him with his belt. Frazier told him he better keep using it to keep his pants up -- there'd be no whupping of him that day. The farm boss, apparently disliking the odds of him and his belt against the bullnecked Frazier and his fists, backed off. But Frazier's mother feared it wouldn't be safe for him there anymore if he couldn't "get along" with whites and sent him to New York in 1959 at age 15 to live with a brother as soon as they saved enough money for bus fare.

He eventually ended up in Philly working in a slaughterhouse -- a tidbit that Sylvester Stallone fessed up to having stolen for his make-believe movie pug "Rocky." ("I was the drain man -- my job was to make sure the blood went down the drain," Frazier said.) But while a statue of fictional Rocky now stands in Philly, boxer Bernard Hopkins lamented last week that Frazier still doesn't have one in their hometown though Frazier's real-life story trumps Rocky's a few times over.

A Philly trainer, Yank Durham, noticed Frazier working out in a boxing gym to lose weight and saw something promising in him. Before long, Frazier was on his way to the 1964 U.S. Olympic trials. Though he lost in heavyweight final to Buster Mathis, he got his chance to box at the Tokyo Games anyway after going there as an alternate and seeing Mathis withdraw at the last minute with an injured hand. Frazier -- who was generously listed at 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds most of his career -- beat a 30-year-old German mechanic named Hans Huber in the Olympic final on a split decision, though Frazier had broken his left thumb in his semifinal fight. (Later in his career, Frazier also hid that a cataract obscured the vision in his left eye.)

Frazier worked with Eddie Futch before long, too, and it was Futch who gave him even more of the bob-and-weave style that became his signature, as much as that left hook or insistence on making every fight feel as though it was being waged in a phone booth.

While Ali preferred to stick and move, floating around the ring in his tassled high tops, Frazier was a brawler who was willing to absorb three punches to land one. He had a granite jaw, he had sledgehammers in each fist, but he was far more than that. There were more physically gifted fighters than Frazier, to be sure. Six-foot-four George Foreman, the only pro fighter to beat him besides Ali, was one. And yet perhaps only Ali -- who went toe to toe more with Frazier -- could stand up to Frazier's blast-furnace intensity and will, that way he just inexorably kept coming at you, at you, at you, like a runaway dump truck in the wrong lane.

[+] EnlargeJoe Frazier
Al Bello/Getty ImagesJoe Frazier defined himself as a boxer at a young age and carried that role throughout the rest of his life.

Frazier never really got over Ali's belittling of him. And it's hard to blame him. He had stood up for Ali years before their first fight, signing a petition that went all the way to President Nixon arguing Ali's right to box should be reinstated. He also had refused to fight in the WBA heavyweight elimination tournament to replace Ali as heavyweight champ in 1967 at Futch's urging, though perhaps also because he didn't like the financial terms.

Ali's pigeon-holing of him as the white man's champion was not unlike what happened to Floyd Patterson years earlier in his good-vs.-evil fights against Sonny Liston, whose past included prison time and (it was rumored) some leg-breaking work for mob loan sharks.

But while Patterson faltered under the weight and heat of that -- suffering first-round knockouts less than two minutes into both fights against Liston, and leaving the arena in disguise after the first one because of his mortifying shame -- Frazier didn't wobble. People were trying to draft him into a black-on-black war every bit as unpalatable to him as Ali's famous stand that "I ain't got no quarrel against them Viet Cong." And Frazier refused to willingly go there.

When people suggested Ali's ugly taunts were just part of the promotion, Frazier didn't want to hear it. "Unnecessary," he once told Kram. "Why would we both have to do that when we had guarantees?" Frazier as some Uncle Tom? Try telling that to ol' Bellamy back on that Beaufort farm, if his knees have stopped knocking yet. Ugly? As Frazier winked and told the New York Times just a few years ago, "I have 11 babies, so somebody must've thought I was cute."

Frazier was not as glib or ethereal looking or invested with so much symbolism as Ali has been. He made mistakes in life and squandered a fortune. But Frazier was right, not just provocative, when he often asked, "Who would Ali have been without me?"

If boxing has any value at all, it's what it reveals about people once they've been thrown into such a crucible. Joe Frazier didn't just battle Ali the Boxer three times -- he was in a lifelong clinch with Ali the Icon. What Frazier did in response transcended the ring too. Win or lose, through thick and thin, despite more pain than we'll ever know, Frazier's determination to wade through every punch and insult that came his way predated his encounters with Ali. It sprang from something deeper and more personal, something that other black people used to shout in the '60s outside the ring, at other fights in Birmingham and Selma and the Mall in Washington, D.C.: I am a man.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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