Great fighters are supposed to have something called “heart,” but it’s not easy to understand where it comes from or what its limits are. In Joe Frazier‘s case, it came from a rural upbringing replete with bootleg whiskey, one-armed fathers, and enough poverty and mysticism to keep a stable of Delta bluesmen busy. As for limits, no man found his inside a boxing ring. In his first fight against Muhammad Ali, he was tattooed with so many punches that it was a wonder he was still standing, let alone winning. By the middle rounds, with Frazier still there in front of him, even returning his taunts, what must have gone through Ali’s mind? What must he have thought in Manila four years later, when, after scarcely missing him over the first three rounds, Ali saw Frazier came out for the fourth round and begin stalking him, thudding those awful Frazier left hooks into his kidneys? The temperature inside the amphitheater in Quezon City, just outside the Philippine capital, was well over 100 degrees by all accounts: spectators said they were pouring sweat just sitting still. All the seats were filled and so were many of the aisles. The place was a fire trap, sauna, and torture factory rolled into one. The fighters’ gloves became waterlogged and soggy, making sounds through the television I’d never heard in a fight before and have never heard since.
Frazier went into those fights with Ali, his old friend and confidant Dave Wolf said, prepared to put his life on the line — and he did. He nearly died after the first one. He saw his blood pressure spike to terrifying levels not long after his victory. Doctors kept him on a sheet of ice for 24 hours as they tried to stabilize him. He spent weeks in the hospital, a fact Ali wouldn’t let him forget. Frazier also apparently waged most of his career with a cataract in his left eye, meaning he was essentially a one-eyed fighter — adding a profound dimension to his achievements in the ring. In the third fight with Ali, Frazier eventually lost the use of his one good eye, closed shut by Ali’s punches. Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, decided to halt that fight before the 15th and final round. But Frazier seemed prepared to give his life in Manila.
What kind of man does this? Mark Kram wrote after the first Ali fight that Frazier had fought with a “fortitude only surpassed by men in war.” It’s true. But war has its reasons; what is boxing’s excuse? Isn’t the sport, at its core, crazy? Probably. But even if it is, that wouldn’t be sufficient to persuade people not to watch, and in fact it might compel them to watch.
The Frazier obituaries have been heartening — generous and even sometimes apologetic. Better late than never, but in life Frazier never got the public embrace he deserved. In another era, he might have been loved and admired, maybe even becoming an icon on the order of Joe Louis. Frazier was another victim of the 1960s and of the cultural madness that made a portion of the public willing to accept assertions that on their face should have been rejected as absurd. This mentality allowed, for a time, a virtual whitewash of Ali’s serial assaults on a good man’s dignity. Now, perhaps, the ledgers are balancing back just a bit. (Ali did have his good points, though they’re hard to find in the Frazier chapter.)
Frazier spent the last 15-20 years of his life unleashing his rage at what Ali had done to him, even chillingly seeming to take pleasure in Ali’s decrepit condition. “I’ll open up the graveyard and bury his ass when the Lord chooses to take him,” he wrote of Ali in his 1996 autobiography. Pain and rage, however well-earned, rarely make for appealing company, and Joe’s bitterness cost him dearly in public affection and commercial opportunities, to say nothing of the costs to his own well-being. The truth is, despite many good efforts to bring them together, Frazier and Ali never really did make peace. And maybe that is the way it had to be.
We wanted them to reconcile to expiate our own guilt for the mayhem they had worked on one another and to obscure what we all knew was true: that they had destroyed one another long ago, body and soul, and we had thrilled to it. I don’t know if boxing should exist or not. It’s a sport with enough moral challenges to occupy a full-time ethicist. And I don’t know what it means that, when I was young, instead of artists, thinkers, or statesmen, I chose prizefighters for my heroes. What I do know is that in choosing Joe Frazier as the foremost among them, I couldn’t have picked a nobler exemplar. Rest in peace, champ.