by Mike Casey – Watch your friends. You never know when they might turn on you. Thirty-four years after their final titanic fight, Joe Frazier clearly still wonders what he ever did to earn the bitterness and ingratitude of Muhammad Ali. Sixty five years old and looking much older, walking with a cane and rattling around his little Philadelphia gym with his bitter sweet memories, Frazier must also wonder how the tables have been turned so cleverly on him again. Once again he is the villain of the piece for not forgiving and forgetting, the resentful second fiddle in one of heavyweight boxing’s greatest sagas, the dumb gorilla of Ali’s spiteful invention. Couldn’t speak lucidly then, certainly can’t speak lucidly now. Serves him right.
Life certainly has a way of kicking you in the privates when you are a thoroughly decent man who plays it straight. And if you happen to be a thoroughly decent black man who plays it straight, mind old Uncle Tom doesn’t steal your identity while you’re doing a friend a few kindly favours.
So why is your writer dragging all this up again when it would seem that nothing more of great importance can be said about the still enduring rivalry between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali? A bit like trying to find a new angle on Jack the Ripper, isn’t it? Well, so I thought.. Yet so complex is the Frazier-Ali story, so encased in sensitive and inrerlocking strands, that any new or rehashed footprint has a way of setting us all off again. It is a rollicking, never ending tale of heroes and villains, astomishing courage, betrayal and bad blood. The Beach Boys had nothing on these guys.
I have just watched, for the second time, British film maker John Dower’s intriguing documentary, Thriller in Manila, in which Mr Dower travels to Philadelphia to get the Frazier perspective on how it was and how it is. The documentary isn’t new by any means, but I found that it had a far greater impact on its second viewing. I’m sure that those of you who haven’t seen it won’t be greatly shocked to learn that Mr Dower knows very little about boxing, since this is now a curious and quite charming pre-requisite of making a boxing documentary. But he does make a very good film, even though the knowlegeable likes of Marvis Frazier, George Benton and Butch Lewis are unfortunately forced to share air time withn that ubiquitous duo, Thomas Hauser and Dr Ferdie Pacheco.
Hauser is perfect for the modern boxing documenntary, a veritable hub of psychological and sociological insight, whose intellectual meanderings nearly manage to paper over the considerable cracks in his boxing knowledge. Pacheco is the same old Pacheco, the abrasive saint who forever reminds us that he was the first to predict that it would all end in tears. Ah, but we never listen to our doctors as much as they think we should do, do we?
The shining star of the documentary, spellbinding and holding our attention as ably as any great actor, is Joe Frazier himself. We see Joe coaching his young boxers in the old school way and falteringly bandaging his hands for a private little session on the speed bag. We see him alone with his thoughts, staring off into space and recalling memories that must echo like thunderstorms in his mind. Tired eyed and resting on his cane, he looks like an old bluesman who has seen it all and can’t think of anything more to write.
While John Dower’s documentary goes a little heavy on the lingering shots of a busted up old fighter still living in the toughest part of the town, the overall effect is mesmerising and devoid of any sense of pity. Melancholy, yes, but Frazier’s character and soul – still as defiantly flinty as a cliff face – won’t allow pity to creep into the mix. Dower, thankfully, quickly seems to get the point. Too much rage, too much bad blood and too much fighting spirit in this old bruiser Frazier to try and soften him into telling tearful tales of hardship about those early days down home in South Carolina. Frazier still instinctively clenches that famous left fist whenever he gets rattled. One can almost hear Dower thinking, “Better to retire to a safe distance and just let the old boy talk.”
Joe doesn’t talk too well any more, those familiar fighter’s stones having taken up residence in his mouth, but he talks honestly in that certain and non-cluttered way that the few real men do. No more points to prove. No need to brag, no need to be falsely modest, no need to dwell at any great length on the fact that he was fighting as the one-eyed Harry Greb of the heavyweights for most of his professional career. At times he describes his amazing achievements with all the bluntness and simplicity of a factory worker talking about another shift. And who did he admire greatly and go to bat for when he won the heavyweight championship of the world? Why, Muhammad Ali.
The greater story, with its rich background, has been often told and I won’t recount it in great detail here. But as most of us know, Ali’s conversion to Islam and his refusal to fight for his country in Vietnam left him out in the boxing wilderness for three years. Before his transition to the cool darling of those who yearn to do something unpredictable and daring themselves, he had few friends. Crusty old Ring editor Nat Fleischer, despite his reputation among some as the merciless J. Edgar Hoover of boxing, continued to recognize Ali as the rightful world champion when all around were whipping the crown off Muhammad’s head and salivating over the outcome of the WBA’s eight-man elimination tournament.
Could ex-WBA champ Ernie Terrell recover from his Ali thrashing and come again? Could that nice young lad Jerry Quarry win it for the white man? I can still imagine a group of WBA executives huddled around a conference table in the aftermath, saying, “Oh dear, it’s that quiet one, Jimmy Ellis. Say what you like about old Ernie, but at least we could always talk about his height – and his sister is in The Supremes you know.”
No less steadfast than Fleischer in his support of Ali was Joe Frazier. Hard as it is to believe now, the two men liked each other and Frazier saluted and supported Ali for standing by his beliefs. Joe petitioned for the return of Muhammad’s boxing license and even loaned him money. Ali gladly accepted the help, but did that spiteful streak in his nature interpret Joe’s kindness as a patronising pat on the head that had to be avenged? The point is made in Dower’s documentary that Ali’s victimization of Frazier went far deeper than the mental scars inflicted on previous opponents.
These crucial facts are important to remember, since Frazier’s stance on Ali’s hugely controversial fight with the draft board was hardly that of an ‘Uncle Tom’. And that was the insulting name with which Ali cynically re-christened Frazier after Joe had been greatly instrumental in reviving Muhammad’s fading star and shoving him back into the limelight that was his lifeblood. “He’s not like me,” Ali said of Frazier to British chat show host, Michael Parkinson, “he works for the enemy.”
Well, there’s a little bomb in itself. ‘Not like me’, in the sense of not being a black man who has paid his dues? Frazier had to fight and scrap every inch of the way to earn his recognition and respect, from Beaufort in the south where he worked in the fields from the age of seven, to Philly in the east where he toiled in a slaughterhouse. Pardon me if my memory is playing tricks, but when exactly did the stately Muhammad ever have to grind his guts out like that?
Joe’s mother, Dolly, would smoke a corn cob pipe on her porch in her few quiet moments in the South Carolina days, in a scene that could have been a hundred years before. When the young Cassius Clay had his nice bicycle stolen, he never stopped telling the story. Ali claims he threw his Olympic gold medal in the local river when he discovered he still had to sit at the back of his restaurant in the days of segregation. Fine. Nothing like a symbolic spit in the eye to get people’s blood boiling, though some would say a tad pointless if the restaurant manager isn’t there to watch you do it. Was Frazier an Uncle Tom for holding on to his gold medal? There is something wonderfully enduring and equalizing about the smallest chunk of gold. You simply point at it in times of need and ask, “By the way, do you have one of these?”
‘Dumb’ was the other word employed by Ali that cut Frazier to the quick. Was Joe really too sensitive in feeling that this kind of language went far beyond the boundaries of fair play? This was the convenient excuse that is perpetrated to this day by the Ali faction. Couldn’t take a joke, poor old Joe. Bit slow on the uptake. Pacheco repeats the ‘dumb’ accusation in the documentary and stands by it, prefacing his little dig with the usual nauseous rubbish about not meaning to offend. He brings to mind the stereotypical stand-up comic who opens up with the old chestnut, “I never speak ill of the mother-in-law, but….”
One has to remember that Ali had become a hugely influential icon by the time of the Manila fight in 1975. His every word spread around the world like wildfire, instantly embraced as the gospel truth by the usual gullible disciples who never have a life or a thought of their own. Frazier was viciously portrayed as an ape-like simpleton who was barely human, couldn’t string two sentences together and probably couldn’t read or write. Ali, by contrast, was not just the master boxer but the master of words, the working man’s T.S. Eliot minus the gloom and the constipation. Or was he?
During one of his appearances on the Michael Parkinson show, Ali was invited to read a passage from a book. This was no cynical ploy on the part of ‘Parky’, who often invited other guests to do likewise. A well travelled journalist and a TV host of the old school, he was consistently generous to his guests and didn’t perceive himself as the star of the show that carried his name. Imagine his surprise, and everyone else’s, as Ali quickly boiled over and launched into a self-conscious rant of near paranoid proportions. He was being trapped! He was being deceived! The white man with the clipboard was trying to make him look like a dumb nigger who probably couldn’t read! The huge whiff of irony didn’t seem to find its way up Muhammad’s nose. He didn’t take the book from Parkinson and the storm quickly subsided.
Could Ali read? I don’t know and I don’t care. There are far greatr human deficiencies after all. But the sudden spectre of reasonable doubt should have alerted him to the folly of mocking others.
Ali, for all his undoubted ability in the ring, was always playing a carefully cultivated role in public life. Force fed the appropriate quotes and quips by his religious instructors, he threw in some amusing poems of his own and hypnotized otherwise intelligent people into believing that he was everything from a great literary talent to a natural born comedian. Other celebrities and high-brows tripped over themselves to share his spotlight. Never hurts to be seen with a fighter, dear – especially one who can walk and talk and do things like that. Must brush up on those Liston fights and pretend we were there. But Ali wasn’t an intellectual, any more than he is a living saint now because of a dreadful disease that no humane being would ever wish on another.
He tortured Floyd Patterson terribly for 12 rounds at Las Vegas in 1965, and inflicted similarly protracted punishment on Ernie Terrell two years later. Floyd and Ernie were punished for calling Ali by his ‘slave name’ of Cassius Clay. Odd that such an offensive name should have remained on his passport and driving license, eh?
From around 1970, when he returned to the fray with a third round TKO of Jerry Quarry, Ali turned on Frazier and never stopped upping the stakes as innocent horseplay turned into something much darker and much more personal. His puppet strings pulled by the fanatics who surrounded him, Muhammad went on a vendetta ride and singled out Frazier as his principal target. The irony truly piled up with Ali. Was he really so blind to it? Too ‘dumb’ to see it, perhaps? He slated Frazier for being an employee of the predominantly white Cloverlay Group in Philadelphia. Yet Ali the maverick, Ali the free thinker, was far more tightly controlled by his superiors in the Nation of Islam. Abdul Rahiman, who converted Muhammad, speaks of him in Dower’s documentary as ‘a great fish’, as in a great catch. Of course he was. Did he ever seriously think he was anything else? The long lost prodigal son they had all been waiting for?
It was Rahiman who told Ali to calm the maddng crowd with the famous line, “I got nothing against no Viet Cong.” Everything said and done had to be approved and rubber-stamped by the Nation of Islam’s hierarchy. Ali, the apparent free spirit, was a celebrity mouthpiece. Who was the slave? Ali or Frazier?
From the Fight of the Century in 1971 to the Thriller in Manila in 1974, the red river of bad blood between Frazier and Ali swelled until it finally burst its banks. You had to be there, as the saying goes. You had to live through that era to truly understand it. I was a sixteen year old London schoolboy in 1971, when I got some small idea of how Joe Frazier must have felt. There was a hotbed of Ali support within the school that was almost manic and frightening in its intensity. I happened to let it slip that I wanted Frazier to win, and did I catch hell for that. You quickly got shouted down and shunted off to the side lines if you didn’t belong to the Ali club. No credit from my so-called pals the following day, of course, by which time the news had drifted across the pond that Frazier had won.
Years later, though still very much in the pre-Internet days, I wrote one or two articles on why I believed Ali’s special fistic gifts entitled him to a place among the heavyweight elite. I got one or two letters of thanks. Then I wrote an essay on Ali the man, arguing that he had brought as many bad things to boxing as good. Dear oh dear. The roof fell in and the vitriol came in torrents. I was a rogue. I was a traitor. Oh yes, I nearly forgot – I was a racist too. The all-purpose word was just catching on in the UK, rather like ‘motherfucker’. Thankfully for me, the use of ‘motherfucker’ wasn’t permitted in the still gentle haven of letters to the editor.
The blind faithful were still utterly blind. The main thrust of their criticism, astonishingly, was that I had questioned Ali’s ‘rightful’ ranking as the greatest boxer of all – when in fact the article was purely generic and never once touched upon Muhammad’s boxing prowess. I remember thinking how a night out in the company of Sonny Liston and his buddies might have been a far safer and more pleasurable experience.
There was almost a Soviet-style re-writing of history on those rare occasions when the great one got his backside kicked. It was denied. It didn’t happen. After the Fight of the Century, Ali conveniently forgot his bold pre-fight promise to crawl across the ring and proclaim Frazier the greatest. Then Muhammad heaped further insult upon injury by telling us through a jaw the size of a balloon that he had scored more points and deserved the decision. Nasty white conservative America, with dumb Joe Frazier as its spearhead, had taken a beautiful and wholesome butterfly and nailed its wings to the wall. As an old Scottish journalist used to say whenever something rich curdled his blood, “Pass the sick bag, Alice.”
Within the simple context of a fistic battle between two towering talents, the Fight of the Century remains the quintessential Frazier-Ali fight . Frazier was at the peak of his powers, while Ali was as close as he would ever get to his sublime vintage form of late 1966 to early 1967. As a heavyweight championship fight, it hasn’t been topped since in terms of anticipation, atmosphere and breathtaking quality and courage.
The Thriller in Manila, four years later, was the raw and unplugged sister of the first act, unforgettable and unbelievably thrilling, but a meeting of two decaying talents who were already treading a dangerous path when they clashed for the final time to beat the remaining resistance out of each other. In between the two epics, there was the somewhat muted non-title scrap of 1974, when referee Tony Perez was castigated for quickly breaking the fighters and not allowing Frazier to work for any length of time on Ali’s body. Muhammad won the verdict and the score between the two titans was 1-1 as they headed for the final act in the blast furnace heat of the Philippines.
In Manila, Ali would acquire a gorilla doll and punch it repeatedly whilst chanting his infantile anti-Frazier mantras. One can imagine the glee of the white supremacists at being able to laugh without guilt as a black man championed their basic beliefs. Ali actually spoke at a Ku Klux Klan rally and was clearly impressed by the ovation he received – as well as the playful threat to string him up as an encore. The Klan and the Nation of Islam were reaching out to see if they could scratch each other’s backs. Nothing new there. As a wise old politician said to me a long time ago, “It’s all a con. It’s all a game. Don’t get so worked up about it.”
Well, we know the titanic and bloody story of the Thriller itself and it still seems like yesterday. A fight to the finish, a fight that took both men close to death, with one last drop of irony into the bargain. As the compassionate Eddie Futch was telling the blinded, blood-spitting and furious Frazier that it was over, an equally exhausted Ali was telling his cornermen to cut his gloves off, just as he had done against Sonny Liston 11 years earlier at Miami Beach. Ali didn’t want to go on, Frazier did. But the oft-called child of destiny got lucky again, beaten to the draw by Futch’s decision to call it off.
In the post-fight rush of relief, Ali was beset by humility and relayed his apology to Frazier for the all the bad words that had been said. The gesture didn’t cut much ice. Frazier was always a man who looked other men in the eye. He demanded an apology of a personal nature and there is every indication that the long-standing wounds would have been healed if he had received it. He didn’t.
Has it all gone too far and droned on for too long? Of course it has. In a perfect world, we always want two gutsy heroes who don’t see eye to eye to shake hands and bury the hatchet – preferably not in each other’s backs. Even Marvis Frazier was shocked when his dad wished that Ali would fall into the Olympic flame when he ignited it with shaking hands in 1996. Black humour? Yes, it had probably mellowed to that by that time. But in the new world of the hypersensitive and the plain scared, Frazier’s jibes about Ali’s condition continue to make even some of his friends and supporters wince. The deceptively cheery greeting on Joe’s cellular phone is another cutting reminder of which warrior suffered the greater damage over the long haul.
But let us not allow the blind faithful and the phony intellectuals of the Ali camp to re-cast Joe Frazier as the villain once more. He rose to the bait only after prolonged provocation of the cruellest nature, and he responded in the only never-say-die way that he knew. Ali should have known that this was a man who always fought to the bitter end.
“You hurt my dog and you’d better hide your cat,” was one of Ali’s favourite sayings – or perhaps the favourite saying of somebody else who passed it on. When you stretch a point as far as Ali did, it just doesn’t do to protest that you really didn’t mean it when it suits you to. And when you play childish and cruel games, you really shouldn’t rule out the childish and cruel riposte of, “You started it.”
Despite his lingering bitterness, burnt into his soul by years of taunts and insults, Joe Frazier’s reputation as a professional fighter and a professional human being remains intact. Ali, alas, was a professional fighter but an amateur human being. Never mind who inflicted the greater physical and mental damage. Who do you really think finished on top in the honour and dignity stakes?
“I’m the guy that dusted his pants,” says Joe, “little ol’ me.”
Mike Casey is a boxing journalist and historian. He is a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO), an auxiliary member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and founder and editor of the Grand Slam Premium Boxing Service for historians and fans (www.grandslampage.net).