Thursday, November 10, 2011

Fact and Fiction

This week saw the death of the great American boxer, (Smokin') Joe Frazier, of liver cancer at the age of 67. The grief expressed by sportscasters and fans around the world has been enormous, and indicative of the place that Smokin' Joe has in sports mythology. Boxing is the most mythologized of all sports, and it's no coincidence that a survey of sports movies once reported that half of all sports movies are about boxers and boxing. It's a little like the Western genre, a scraping away of the accoutrements of 'civilization' to return to a more primeval state, where life and death and the potential for sudden loss is ever present. Where excuses won't save you, eloquence won't protect you.

One of the aspects of this week's reportage of Frazier's death is the twinning almost immediately of Frazier's story with that of Muhammad Ali. This is crucial, for in Ali's constructing of his image was his positioning of himself as pretty/sweet/good against ugly/sour/evil. Ali's ability to sell that image, rocked at first by his (then, for the 1960's) radical cultural and ethnic politics, was eventually all pervasive and persuasive. In the late 1960’s he harangued Frazier publicly, with insults about how (in Ali’s view) ugly he was and how dumb he was. Frazier was then cast as the villain in the public’s eye. The reality was very different.

When Ali was banned from boxing (anywhere in the world) in 1967 he was soon broke, and unknown to the general audience at the time, Frazier, then his sworn enemy, financially supported him. They would meet and Frazier would hand him envelopes with several thousand dollars in them. Ali would then go on insulting Frazier in public. Frazier said nothing, partly because he believed Ali’s banning was unjust, and partly because he wanted to fight him one day, eventually buying into Ali’s taunts that they were destined to meet in some kind of heavyweight boxing apocalyptic moment, which they did, when Ali was allowed to box again. Frazier won, clearly. He quietly went home. Ali went on insulting him.

Boxing in the 1960’s and 1970’s was caught up in the storm of words of a storyteller of genius – in Muhammad Ali. He was able to define other fighters in terms they could never escape from. His characterization of them became the accepted. His three most iconic opponents, Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman were all cast firmly into the villain box, with Ali as avenger for all that was good. A deeper reading saw that Ali, the political activist railing against the poverty, lack of educational opportunities and racial prejudice of Black America, had not actually lived that upbringing. Liston, Frazier and Foreman had. Ali had the shadow of slavery over his ancestory, but his parents were part of the black middle-class. Liston was one of 25 children of an itinerant sharecropper, never knew the date or even the year he was born, never learnt to read and write. Frazier’s family were broke tenant farmers who ran bootleg whiskey, Smokin Joe’s first punchbag was a rolled-up blanket stuffed with straw and old clothes and tied to a tree. George Foreman grew up in a Houston, Texas slum called ‘The Bottom.’ Named so because if you arrived there, you had hit rock bottom. They knew the sharp end of being poor and black in the U.S.A. When Sonny Liston won the Heavyweight title he spent the plane journey home memorizing his speech for the press (since he couldn’t read.) When he landed, there was no one there to meet him.

Frazier’s victory over Ali in 1971 didn’t bring him the popularity he’d hoped for, he was respected by aficionados, but not liked by the public. Partly because he had shot down the good guy. He went on about his business. That’s what he did. There was never a more straightforward fighter than Frazier, he just worked and worked. No frills, no fancy moves. His comparitively small stature and short reach meant he often took 2 or 3 punches for every one he landed. He and Ali fought twice more, Ali won both. The third (in 1975) was an epic battle of will where Frazier’s manager Eddie Futch, in a rare (for professional boxing) moment of compassion refused to let the battered and half blinded Frazier come out for a 15th round, as he said he 'wasn't going to watch him die.' An exhausted Ali later said that he himself wouldn't have made it through the round.

In the lead-up to the 1975 fight in the Phillipines Ali had gone all out on Frazier, saying it would be 'a thrilla, a chilla and a killa, when I get the gorilla in Manilla.' Then he called him an Uncle Tom, the ultimate insult for an African-American man of the age. He said he’d done deals with the white man to advance himself. That cut Frazier deep, and he never forgave Ali for that.

In the mid 1970’s a huge chunk of Frazier’s biography was finally brought out into the light, only he wasn’t in it. That’s how his luck ran. He had spent time working in slaughterhouses, punching frozen carcasses to harden his hands. Running in the Philadelphia sleet and snow. The end of his run took him to the steps of Philadelphia city hall. From there he went home. All those moments were used and later immortalized on the movie screen, by Sylvester Stallone’s character Rocky. The Rocky character won enormous cultural currency in America. Once again, fiction had won over fact.

A few years ago the city of Philadelphia decided to erect a statue of a boxer on those steps that Frazier had run up. The statue went up with great ceremony, and - you guessed it - now the character of Rocky stands there in all his homespun glory. No statues went up of Smokin’ Joe Frazier.

Muhammad Ali is now locked away in a world of Parkinson’s syndrome, from where he can no longer tell his stories, Sonny Liston was long ago found dead of a drug overdose at the age of 38 (or 40 or 42 – no-one knows for sure.) It may have been murder, as Liston was not a drug-taker and was terrified of needles. A needle was found in the middle of his BACK. George Foreman has managed to get out from under the villain image of Ali’s creation, and it was an inaccurate image. Through sheer power of will and relentless optimism he has found his own place.

And now Smokin’ Joe Frazier is dead. He was diagnosed only a month ago, and went on making appearances and signing autographs until they put him in the hospice. We now know the story of Ali and Frazier was very different to the one we were sold but the statue of Rocky still stands in Philadelphia’s heart and in America’s cultural heart. Maybe the fiction will always be preferable, and maybe men like Joe Frazier will always be in the shadows, and as characters in other people’s narratives.

R.I.P to a great, great, fighter. And a good man. A man of fact, not of fiction.


  1. A good time to acknowledge the complexity and responsibility of non-fiction writing. When I write fiction, I'm free to characterise as I wish. Hats off to those who must uphold the truth!

  2. I think we need to acknowledge that 'truth' in the wider sense is often subjective (when you're talking psychological or emotional truth). But lies and mis-reprentations are not non-fiction and shouldn't be presented as such. The fallout can be very destructive.