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The Thirty Year War: Ali vs. Frazier

frazier5734544.jpgBy Matt McGrain: When I realised that it was Muhammad Ali up there on the podium about to light the Olympic flame in 1996, my heart sank. The news of Ali’s condition at that time was mostly good – he was described as being “as happy as anyone with each day” amongst other things, but it was the first time in a long time I had seen him, and for an awful moment I thought he was going to fall face first onto the fluttering flame extinguishing both it, and visions of his astonishing boxing genius in one false step. It didn’t work that way of course – Ali didn’t have to climb the steps to the torch, he just had to light a mobile wick, which jetted up to the symbolic torch and whoosh, Ali adds to resume all those years after retiring. He was once more the most famous fighter in the world. The crowds reaction was emotional. Once I got over the relief, mine was too.

Joe Frazier: “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.”

Ali was nowhere near the torch. It wouldn’t surprise me if he had never seen Muhammad’s most iconic moment, if he was unable to watch, to look, if he had only heard of what had happened and the bile had risen. More than 30 years after the most celebrated trilogy in heavyweight boxing history finished, Joe Frazier hates Ali every bit as much as he did waiting for that first bell in Manila. This hatred was forged in, and out of the ring, and the respect born of giving his absolute all that we see so often in fighters involved in such wars was not possible for him for this reason. Frazier was humiliated in ways he could not stand to see unavenged. Had he won the trilogy – as he claims, to this day, that he did – perhaps he could have put that bad feeling behind him, but the two losses have haunted him down the years, it seems, to the point where he can happily wish upon Ali the type of injuries that would have horrified the rest of the rest of the world, and the rest of boxing. Why?

Stripped of his title, Ali was short of both money and the attention he loved so much, whilst Joe had come to prominence as a good heavyweight champion, the type people love – aggressive, dangerous, always looking for the knockout. He was also making a lot of money, and it is said that he offered to support Ali with financial aid until such a time as the deposed champion could return to the ring. Some say he accepted this offer, but Ali’s line has always been that the offer was not accepted, and Frazier has remained mainly silent on the subject. Still, it is a repeating theme on some boxing websites and forums that “Joe gave Muhammad money”.

Their first meeting, in 1971, is the most celebrated fight in history. It has only Johnson-Jeffries and Louis-Schmeling II for company. Johnson-Jeffries was massive because it saw the most reviled black man in American’s short, racist history, taking on the last, greatest, white hope, long-retired out of shape Jim Jeffries. The one sided beating that Johnson administered resulted in lynching’s and beatings up and down the country, as white America struggled to keep a celebrating black America in it’s place. When Louis met Schmeling some years later, America was united behind her black champion and his absolute destruction of the German challenger was celebrated by nearly all as America and the rest of the world prepared for the greatest conflict ever known. But somehow, boxing struck an even more fundamental chord when Frazier met Ali. The world had changed when Muhammad was away from boxing, and he, more than any other figure in public life had come to embody that change. Ali’s refusal of the draft, his counter-culture position – inspired mainly by the strangest set of religious beliefs since man discovered the earth was round -had provided for him the status of a hero representing the change sweeping the nation in the light of it’s rejection of the war. In fairness, America was experiencing the closest thing an affluent western nation can come to revolution, and it is understandable that it’s people got carried away. The tragedy was, that Joe Frazier somehow became associated with the ruling class. Joe was raised in a swamp. For money he stripped down abandoned motor-cars and sold their parts. He didn’t’ go crying to a policeman because his bike had been stolen, the story of Ali’s beginnings in the sport. He was the kid who stole the bike. He was the man who got by in whatever means was necessary. But he wouldn’t crawl. He pulled himself up to the very top on grit, determination and, say it quietly, belief. Joe Frazier should have been the defining black man in America. Instead he became it’s villain.

The publicity for the fight was standard and Frazier played his part. We all know the lines that fighters spout before a contest, and we all know that Ali was very good at it. I think that Joe saw this as all business – especially in light of the friendly terms they had been on between Joe coming to the title – but things got ugly fast. By fight time, things were out of hand. Speaking the week before the fight, Ali said: “Frazier’s no champion. Nobody wants to talk to him. Oh, maybe Nixon. Nixon will call him if he wins. I don’t think he’ll call me. 98 percent of the people are for me…anybody black who thinks Joe Frazier can whup me is an Uncle Tome.” Ali constantly associated Frazier with the Government, with the ruling class, with the very people the tide had turned so thoroughly against. Of course Frazier had white friends – he was friendly with a white police officer, and absolutely castigated for it, but never once wavered in that friendship – Ali did too. Only one was preaching separatism. Frazier: “it was a cynical attempt by Clay to make me feel isolated from my own people. He thought that would weaken me in the ring. Well, he was wrong. It didn’t weaken me, it awakened me to what a cheap son of a bitch he was.”

Frazier knew it was bullshit, but the consequences were very real. Tom Payne, Frazier’s bodyguard for the Fight of the Century, said that he “never saw Joe unnerved [by the death threats]”, but those death threats came in waves. His family was also threatened. Joe Frazier took this knowledge on his six mile runs and into the ring where he beat sparring partners mercilessly. “I don’t think anyone could have beaten me that night,” Joe offered recently, and to the fight plan itself in his autobiography, he said this: “What I would do was pound on his kidneys and spleen.” 300 million people saw Frazier do just that. During the fight Frazier became one of the few men to get the better of Ali in the verbal’s. “Don’t you know I’m God,” Ali offered. “God, you’re in the wrong place tonight. I’m kicking ass and taking names.” “I’m going to kill you, nigger”, was another offering Muhammad made according to Joe, his response: “Yeah that’s what you got to do. Cause I ain’t going nowhere.” Then, at the final bell, having dumped the butterfly in front of more people than watched the moon landing, “I kicked your ass.”

Short, and for Joe, ever so sweet.

Frazier was desperately ill after the fight, which actually came close to being cancelled because of his condition, something Joe has never really talked about. According to Micheal Krush he was suffering from high blood pressure and lethargy. According to Thomas Hauser, “there were serious conversations about calling the fight off. If it had been anyone other than Ali, they probably would have called it off.” Depending on who you believe, after the fight Frazier was either in hospital by day and with women at night, or on a bed of ice in the hospital unable to move, close to death. Joe himself admits that in the first week he “couldn’t move or urinate”. It is probably the case that he was never again the same as a fighter. Ali used this against him in the war of words that followed, claiming it prove he had won the fight, in reality. In print, he went even further than before. “Joe Frazier is ugly…all he does is take punches…to go 15 hard rounds and send him to the hospital is why people still regard me as champion…he says he’s satisfied, with a crumb…thankful to get a crumb…give the nigger a crumb and expect him to be thankful.” This is deeply shocking stuff, and Frazier was beside himself. He happily admits that “every time Clay opened his big mouth it made me want to keep his ass on hold.” he return was not made immediately – and the second time they met, no title was on the line, as Frazier had been destroyed by George Foreman.

At the news conference for II, things got very ugly.

“I’m gonna whip you like I’m Willie Pep you Uncle Tom!”

“Tom, huh? My skin is blacker than yours. Maybe you’re really a half-breed.”

“You’re the white man’s champ!”

Perhaps it was inevitable that race would become the defining issue between these two, but it still makes for ugly reading all these years later. The fight itself was an anti-climax. Eddie Futch claimed that Ali instigated 133 clinches in the fight, Ali having identified the strategy necessary to win but admitting his surprise that he was allowed to carry it out by the referee. Some ringsiders had Joe winning – The New York Times had Frazier winning – but it seems that Ali won a close one to me. Certainly Joe’s insistence that he “Really won the fight” seems symptomatic of Frazier’s hatred of Ali, though it is not unusual in fighters. “but for the three blind mice who judged the second fight between Clay and me, it’d been two wins in a row for me…”

And the most bitter encounter between these two great heavyweights (Joe is #5, Ali is #1 on my list) was still ahead of them.

By the time of this fight, Ali was the champion again. He was also a superstar, having beaten George Foreman in seemingly impossible circumstances. But the counter-culture war that was raging during the first fight was one the wane and the Uncle Tom angle was unlikely to sell in the same way. Ali found something even uglier. “It wasn’t any joke to my children when their father would tease them that their father was a gorilla. They would come home crying.”

Mark Kram saw Al confront Frazier mob-handed and with real bile in Manila, even firing an empty gun in Joe’s direction, screaming that he was going to “kill the gorilla!” in front of the assorted tourists. Joe retreated into his room: “Am I? Am I a gorilla? He doesn’t know how this hurts my kids.

When I think of Muhammad Ali, I think of him spinning off the ropes and gunning down George Foreman. I think of the breath-taking interview he gave after that fight, and his plans for his now all-consuming fame. I don’t like to think of what he did to Joe Frazier in Manila before they stepped between the ropes. When Joe heard, he reportedly punched a whole in the wall of the gym. “Eddie, listen up! Whatever you do, whatever happens, don’t stop the fight! We got nowhere to go after this. I’m gonna eat this half-breed’s heart right out of his chest. I mean it! “This is the end – for me or him!” Eddie did stop the fight after a display of heart and guts – from both men – which would have appeared ridiculous in a Rocky movie. They were incredible that night. If only the ugliness which had gone before hadn’t happened, perhaps Joe wouldn’t be dragging around so much bitterness with him all these years later. He deserved better from Muhammad Ali, not as a fellow black, but as a fellow human – and most of all as a fellow fighter. These two have been to a place in the ring which few modern fighters have visited, and they went together. Ali has made his peace:

“If I was called to a holy war I would want Joe Frazier fighting by my side”.

But Joe hasn’t made his. Thomas Hauser tells this story, which he witnessed first hand, at a lunch in a break of the filming of a documentary in 1988. Ken Norton, Larry Holmes, George Foreman and Joe and Muhammad were all in attendance: “Joe had some alcohol at the luncheon. And Joe doesn’t handle his liquor particularly well. Ali was sort of floating around like Mr.Magoo. Joe was in an ugly mood and would sort of brush up against him. You could see trouble was coming. So wherever Joe walked, Larry Holmes would walk with him and interpose himself between Joe and Ali…Larry did this for about ten minutes and then George Foreman took over.”

“The truth is I’d like to rumble with that sucker again – beat him up piece by piece and mail him back to Jesus…people ask me if I feel bad for him. Nope. I don’t. Fact is I don’t give a damn. They want me to love him, but I’ll open the graveyard and bury his ass when the lord chooses to take him…Clay always mocked me – like I was the dummy. Getting hit in the head. Now look at him. He can hardly talk and he’s still out there trying to make noise…he’s a ghost, and I’m still here. Let’s talk about who REALLY won those fights.”

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