Thursday, November 10, 2011
Fact and Fiction
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.
R.I.P to a great, great, fighter. And a good man. A man of fact, not of fiction.