"Smokin'" Joe Frazier: The Death of the Disrespected

The first African American man to address the South Carolina state legislature after the Civil War wasn't Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. DuBois or Dr. Martin Luther King. It was heavyweight boxing champion "Smokin'" Joe Frazier who died this week at the age of 67. Frazier had just emerged victorious from his epic 1971 encounter against Muhammad Ali, in a fight that was cast as a culture war between the "draft dodger" Ali and the "establishment hero" Joe Frazier. If you were against the war in Vietnam, you rooted yourself hoarse for Ali. If you wanted the hippies, freaks and Black Power disciples humbled, you wanted "Smokin'" Joe.

 

In the wake of Frazier's death much has been written that he didn't deserve this tag: that he was labelled unfairly as a "sellout" by Ali and suffered for it. It is certainly true that Ali and Frazier were friends before their conflicts consumed Frazier with fury. It's also true that when Ali was forced into exile for resisting the draft, it was Joe Frazier who gave Ali money when many others turned their backs on "The Greatest."

 

Ali said to Frazier, "You just keep whupping those guys in the ring, and I'll keep fighting Uncle Sam and one day we'll make a lot of money together"

 

But by 1971, both men were playing their roles. Ali taunted Frazier for being an Uncle Tom. Frazier also, and less remembered, taunted Ali for being against the war.  He said that because he loved America, he'd proudly fight in Vietnam. He also repeatedly insulted Ali by calling him by his birthname, "Clay"

 

And then, after he whipped Ali in the "fight of the century," Joe Frazier accepted that invitation to speak at the South Carolina legislature: a conquering hero.

 

One of 13 children born in abject poverty in Beaufort, South Carolina, it's certainly understandable why he would accept the historic invite. But that doesn't make it any less of a full embrace of his role as the "good one" in the Ali-Frazier melodrama.

 

Speaking in a room with a confederate flag backdrop in front of a chamber with only three black representatives among its 170 elected officials, Frazier's message was gentle. He told jokes to great laughter about growing up in Beaufort and saying, "Yes bawse and no bawse" no matter the question.

 

He also said earnestly, "We must save our people, and when I say 'our people' I mean white and black. We need to quit thinking about who drives the fanciest car or who is my little daughter going to play with, who is she going to sit next to in school. We don't have time for that." Then his own 10 year old daughter, to great cheer stood and said, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. My daddy is the one who whipped Muhammad Ali."

 

While the chamber and national media swooned, Ali seethed. The beaten champ said Frazier was "consorting with the enemy." He had, in Ali's eyes, become a hero to the very people who as a young man in South Carolina wouldn't have even spit in his direction.

 

As the 1970s labored on, and the movements that thrived at the decade's inception began to wither, Ali's taunts toward Frazier became less political and more indefensible. When their epic 1975 fight in Manila loomed, Ali repeatedly called Frazier "a gorilla." He spoke verses on how "black and ugly" Frazier was. For Ali, it was part of the show. For Frazier, it was more scarring than any punch in Ali's arsenal.

 

Years later, Ali commented, "I said a lot of things in the heat of the moment that I shouldn't have said. Called him names I shouldn't have called him. I apologize for that. I'm sorry. It was all meant to promote the fight"

 

Joe Frazier didn't want to hear apologies. In retirement he would express joy at any role he may have played in Ali's Parkinson's disease. When Ali famously lit the torch at the 1996 Olympics, Frazier expressed grief that he couldn't be there to shove Ali into the fires.

 

The roots of his anger were deeper than just anything uttered by Muhammad Ali. Joe Frazier was the 1964 Olympic Gold Medalist. He never dodged a draft. He never boasted of throwing his medal in the Ohio River. He never said "God damn America." Yet there was Ali lighting the torch while he was stuck at home. The establishment had chosen the anti-hero, and Joe Frazier was cast merely as the foil and the fool.

 

It boggled Frazier's mind when his adopted home of Philadelphia put up a statue of a boxer, and chose the very fictional—and very white—Rocky Balboa as their favorite fighting son. He did things "the right way" and Philly gave him the back of their hand like they were just another "bawse" in Beaufort.

 

This shouldn't have been Joe Frazier's fate: the convenient hero of everyone who wanted to see Ali punished for his politics. This shouldn't have been Joe Frazier's fate: internalizing and nursing every barb from "Gaseous Cassius" instead of letting it roll off his back. This shouldn't have been Joe Frazier's fate: rejected by the same establishment so quick to embrace him when it suited their needs. "Smokin' Joe" deserved so much better.


[Dave Zirin is the author of “The John Carlos Story” (Haymarket) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.]

10 Reader Comments | Add a comment

Joe Exposed?

Hmm, i didn't know about some of Frazier's actions during that time. I guess Ali was not being completely inaccurate in his characterization of Frazier. Though to be fair, who is the one who's been co-opted now?

That statue of Rocky also left me dumbfounded. Great movie but it he is not a real boxer and the guy the movie is loosely based on (Chuck Wepner), Stallone financially stiff armed.

For Smokin' Joe the lesson was: you lie down with dogs and you'll wake up with fleas.

Ali attended a Klan rally at the same time

Comrade Zirin takes Frazier to task for speaking to the South Carolina legislature-- which incidentally had more black legislators at the time than in New York.

Yet Comrade Zirin ignores the fact that Ali attended a Ku Klux Klan rally to support racial separatism.

Ali came from a solidly-middle class family in Louisville, who later became a slavish follower of the cult-like Nation of Islam. The NOI threatened Ali repeatedly, and feed him many of "his" best lines about those vietcong, etc.

Watch HBO's Thrilla in Manila if you want a more realistic protrayal of their relationship than Zirin gives in his white-washed, commercialized-radical version of Ali.

The Greatest Love of All

This sad story just speaks to the complex nature of what it's like to be black in this society. In the end, the powers that be only love you to the extent they can use you and profit from you (you listening Magic Johnson). In 1971, who would have thought it would end this way, Ali carrying the torch for good ole USA, Frazier kicked to the curb. The lesson for me is this: learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all. You can't expect to find your sense of worth and dignity from trying to please the master. You'll end up broken every time.

that is really sad...

and ironic. I can see why he "chippy".

Ali/ Frazier

Ali was the consumate entertainer and at the same time one of the greatest sports figure the world has ever known.

Centuries to come the world will still remember Ali and Frazier will only be remembered as the first man to beat Ali. Without Ali we would not even be talking about Frazier today. Ali made Frazier.

Everyone is aware that Ali always berated his opponents to sell tickets to his fights. The man doesn't have a hateful bone in his body.

However, Frazier always hated Ali for the things he said about him. Imagine his comment about pushing Ali in the flames when Ali lit the Olympic torch. If that not true hate, I don't know what is.

The only reason Frazier was asked to speak to the South Carlonia legislature was because he beat Ali and they wanted Ali to be beaten so badly.

Ali is a great human being. Ali and Frazier will be remembered for their three epic fights.

I can believe Ali's apologies to Frazier but I don't believe Frazier's apologies were sincere

Smokin' Joe Frazier

What we see in the Frazier-Ali rivalry was that split that would develop in African American political thought, today pretty much represented by Herman Cain and Barack Obama. Seen from the eyes of the dominant culture Frazier was the flag waving accommodationist ("our black") and Ali was the anti-war militant ("their black"). One deserved our praise, the other our contempt. Frazier must have been disheartened when he finally saw how history judged him.

Ali-Frazier

I learned some things I didn't know.

Muhammad Ali, however was a truly great boxer and his refusal to fight in Vietnam where, 'no Vietnamese ever called him n---,' was the correct decision to make. The incorrect decision was made on the part of the state department and the country that stripped him of his title for his political beliefs. Joe Frazier's shift away from supporting Ali's actions is curious. I do not understand it. And what was worse, is that the effects of the controversy spilled over into the boxing careers of the daughters of both Men. This illustrates thoroughly how divisive political agendas can separate AFRIKAN people and any peoples who basically believe in freedom and empowerment. Just as a thought: Ancestor Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt served in the military as well. And he came back home and put his skills to good use, by becoming a member of the Black Panther Party and keeping many Afrikan people alive when J Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO 'counter intelligence' program sought to disrupt and dis-unify and kill everyone everyone from the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to El Hajj Malik El Shabazz and the Organization of Afro-American Unity to the BPP. Ancestor Smokin' Joe Frazier should be remembered for his positive deeds and contributions to AFRIKAN people and to humanity. Muhammad Ali is being remembered for his. ALL POWER TO THE PEOPLE

Discerning the good, bad, ugly

If one were to examine the influences upon one of America's inconic giants, i.e., MLK, Jr, one would realize his intellect and persona were informed by a slew of influences. They range from Nietzsche to Jesus Christ. Further examination reveals these influences run the gamut in terms of their attitudes, behavior, morals, and politics. In reflecting upon the life and times of Smokin' Joe Fraizer and Muhummad Ali (and his inevitable demise) let us never for forget that let "he/she who is devoid of good, bad, and ugly aspects" throw the first stone. RIP Joe Frazier "AN AMERICAN HERO!"

Head protection for boxers

Ali killed Smokin Joe, Joe killed Ali....for the entertainmenet of the masses..

Ali-Frazier

Good article. Ali, however, didn't wait forJoe's talk at the legislature to insult him at a very embarrassing personal level. The "uncle Tom" indignity was thrown at Frazier prior to their '71 fight, and it was was tremendously scathing. His later attempts to "promote" their fights were even uglier and abusive. I can understand Frazier's hatred for Ali. Ali deserves it. And, you know, I like Ali; I just don't like him when I think about Frazier.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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