Standing tall in life's ring

Boxing Joe Frazier
Last Updated 12 November 2011, 16:52 IST
Standing tall in life's ring

There was a funeral after a snowstorm. Most of us were able to get to the synagogue on a peninsula on Long Island, but we knew it would be tough, driving from Philadelphia.

The service was over when a car pulled up in the driveway. Joe Frazier and his son Marvis disembarked, dressed in black. They had driven a long time to pay their respects to their friend Ellen, who had become a listening post, a telephone friend, for the champ in his pensive moments.

I can still see the snow on Joe Frazier’s shoes, the solemn look on his face. The two men stayed a long time, as I recall, mingling, at the reception.

This is the Joe Frazier I began to mourn as soon as I heard the bad news about the liver cancer.

“Hmmmph,” I could hear him say. “At least that guy didn’t get me.”

Whether the rivalry was in feud mode or rapprochement mode, Smokin’ Joe always compared himself to Muhammad Ali. He took Ali’s slurred speech from Parkinson’s disease as the ultimate verdict from their three meetings.

People thought Frazier slurred, too, but mostly that was the Gullah dialect from his childhood home in coastal South Carolina. He could make his points with a solid thud, just as Ali, in his verbal prime, could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

A few personal images of Frazier came flooding in. I was never a boxing fan or a boxing writer.

In fact, I am an abolitionist – deplore the sport, love the people. People have mixed feelings about Frazier, triggered both ways by the cruel way Ali felt the need to characterise him as the Gorilla. Up close, he was something so much more, a man whose life did not always run a smooth course but who could be warm and thoughtful and likeable. Here are some of my memories of him:

New York, Feb. 16, 1970: While Ali was suspended for refusing to register for the draft, Frazier had to compete with pretenders like Jimmy Ellis. That night in Madison Square Garden, Ellis could not come out for the fifth round, making Frazier a more legitimate champion. From many rows away, you could hear him shout, “Free at last!” the words Martin Luther King Jr. used at the end of his speech in Washington in 1963. Ali had mocked him as a simian, but now Frazier was a champion, waiting for Ali. Was he ever free at last?

Columbus, Ohio, Nov 8, 1971: I was invited to join the Phil Donahue show inside the maximum-security state prison. Frazier, wearing a long violet leather topcoat, was now the champ, having beaten Ali in their fabled first meeting in March. The gates made their ominous clang as they locked shut, and the inmates, some of them Black Muslims, like Ali, began calling Frazier “the great white hope.”

Frazier was not unprepared, saying he had earned his title in the ring, but the inmates said Ali’s three-year layoff had been a plot by white America. Frazier took the punches well, but I could sense the pain and confusion. What did people want of him?

Chicago, Dec 4, 1981: Frazier’s ill-advised comeback, after 5-1/2 years in retirement, ended with a spurious draw with Jumbo Cummings. Frazier hurt too much to wage much of a protest that he had not been beaten.

 Marvis was there, soon to tell his father it was time to retire. The longer the writers hung around, the more Frazier became his combative self.

“Champ,” I said, “I’d like to introduce you to my daughter.”

He asked what Laura did, and she said she was in college.

What college? the champ asked.

Laura hesitated – never a good idea with Joe Frazier. She was matriculating at Sarah Lawrence but doing her junior year in Iowa. She wasn’t sure which college to mention first.

“Hmmmph,” Smokin’ Joe snorted. “You go to college, but you don’t know the name?” He started to laugh. Then Laura started to laugh as she felt the left hook in her psychic ribs. I think it was that moment when she realized being a sports columnist was cool, if that raffish life involved sitting in lobbies with Smokin’ Joe and Marvis.

Philadelphia, Feb. 24, 1996: The 25th anniversary of the first Frazier-Ali fight was approaching. Frazier was 52, divorced from Florence, his childhood sweetheart. I went to the Frazier gym in North Philly and was immediately brought back into the bitterness. Out in public, he and Ali were reconciled, but in the inner depths of his own gym and his own soul, Frazier still hurt from the gorilla business.

“I won that fight,” he said. “Guess I won the other two, also. I’m here talking to you, right?”
He was pointing out the deterioration in his old foe, who had won the second and third matches, at least on the officials’ cards.

“He called me a Tom,” Frazier continued. “I did things to help him get back in the ring. I can see him now. He was living in Philly at the time. He’d come into this room. Wasn’t as nice as it is now. He’d sit there, and we’d plan stuff together. Promotions. Then he called me a Tom. He was right. I ‘Tommed’ for him.”

Marvis, the preacher, too gentle to have stayed a boxer for long, was there that morning. So was the champ’s daughter, Jacquelyn Frazier-Lyde, a college basketball player, later a boxer, now a lawyer.

“I wish my father and Ali were more friendly,” Frazier-Lyde said, as she and Marvis lovingly told their father he had to get over his bitterness, which he never really did. But he was also a man who could drive in the aftermath of a snowstorm, to pay his respects to a friend.

New York Times News Service

(Published 12 November 2011, 16:52 IST)

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