How we failed Joe Frazier
He was everything Muhammad Ali isn't, and that cost him the affection he deserved
Joe Frazier never got enough from us. Never enough affection, never enough respect. Joe Frazier never got the love we poured down so freely on Muhammad Ali. For this I blame myself.
As a child of the 1960s, what I recall of Joe Frazier is indissoluble from what I remember of Muhammad Ali. Like a lot of kids back then, Ali was my hero. Frazier therefore only the foil, the villain, the second banana. I was too young and stupid to understand that each made the other; that each would create the other's history.
For a little more than four years, from March of 1971 to October of 1975, Ali's titanic struggle against Joe Frazier marked modern boxing's golden age. Three times they fought -- from the "Fight of the Century" at Madison Square Garden to that last humid morning in Manila -- and three times they killed and resurrected one another.
Forty years ago, it felt like two men fighting to define who we all might become. In that fractured age, what was flying apart in sports and politics and culture and religion collided in those three fights. What was flying apart was us, and every punch carried a warning of the future. Every punch weighed the fates. Whole worlds hung in the balance. It felt that way to me. No rivalry in sports will ever again approach it. It was Shakespearean. Homeric.
Understand that Ali was fast and beautiful, all poetry and show business, a hero floating high on the currents of what felt like revolution. Joe Frazier was earthbound, inarticulate, the Silent Majority trapped by gravity.
Ali in the ring was a gesture, a feint, a lightning strike, a brushstroke. Joe Frazier was all dogged effort and grunt and murderous left hand. Implacable, an avalanche of purpose, Joe moved only one way. Joe never stepped back.
And if Muhammad Ali was evidence of genius in the world, of grace, of some divine spark, Joe Frazier was the universal argument on behalf of courage and hard work. Of always moving forward.
Without him, Ali wouldn't exist. Not as we know him. Each legend built the other. So think please of old Joe Frazier as the blue-collar sculptor who hammered Ali's likeness into the walls of the pantheon.
How very much I admire him now. How deeply I regret his passing. Because Joe Frazier wasn't a fighter for the rest of us. Joe Frazier was the rest of us.
I met him a few years ago and tried to thank him for everything he'd done. Tried somehow to apologize, to atone for everything he'd suffered. To say what needed saying. I couldn't find the words. Instead I held his handshake as long as I could. The immensity of his palm was warm and dry and pale, and it was hard to believe that hand rang down so much violence for so long. I wanted to say I loved him for it, and for everything he was and wasn't.
But he just smiled and let me go.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at email@example.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.