It is a strange kind of knowledge — knowing that you don’t know something that you feel like you know. It is hard to grasp that we really don’t know exactly what we feel about a lot of things. But it is an essential truth. We tend to confuse emotions with sensations. Because it seems impossible to mistake feeling hot for cold we imagine that we can’t be in the dark about what we feel emotionally; can’t, say, feel sad and not know it. But, no matter how much we roll our eyeballs back and glance around that inner room we will still, at some level, remain a mystery to ourselves, which of course brings me to the topic of boxing — and Joe Frazier.
A few years back, I was writing an article about the first Ali-Frazier fight. Right there in the middle rounds of scribbling I started sobbing. I was seeping with tears and angry, gauzy thoughts to the effect that people just don’t appreciate the sublime beauty of someone not holding anything back—as Frazier and Ali did on that spring night many springs ago. But I was mainly weeping over Smokin’ Joe.
I grew up in a home that had Friday night fights as well as Wednesday, Saturday, and maybe Tuesday as well. There was love and affection, but there were also enough backhands flying to make the study of self-defense a natural for me. I needed something and someone to make me feel safe. That would be boxing and Smokin’ Joe Frazier.
As every parent who has ever been at a child’s dance recital or Little League game knows, we are creatures who have the ability to live through one another. Sometimes as poison, sometimes as manna, we take people inside of ourselves and they change who we are.
Boxing had always provided rich metaphors for the struggle that is life. And great boxing champions have always been reservoirs of psychic energy.
In the thirties and forties, African Americans were so powerfully identified with Joe Louis that they lived and died with him in the ring. Martin Luther King told a story of a man who went to the gas chamber and as the pellets dropped he bellowed, “Save me Joe Louis.” As the pellets of poisonous fury dropped in my home, I was looking up at the photos that I had pasted on the wall and thinking, “Save me ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier.”
I took strength from Joe Frazier, and as an angry and crazed kid, I also copped a little sense of decorum and dignity from him. I loved the fact that he was an underdog, that he came from South Carolina where his only boxing program was a bag hung on a tree in the backyard. I relished the fact that he started boxing so late that no one would have given him a chance and that like Rocky Marciano, they judged him to be too short and squat to compete with the big heavyweights.
I admired his workman-like quality, his clarity, his fierce determination, his almost defi ant attitude, which at the same time, was devoid of arrogance.
Even today in my office in the philosophy department at St. Olaf, I have a shiny photo of Joe Frazier looking respectfully up at Joe Louis, right next to one of the always laughing Dalai Lama.
Physically, Joe Frazier’s short and thick body housed a strange energy. With his chin tucked on his chest and his gloves tapping together every few seconds, he bounced and weaved as though he were doing the boogaloo. He changed levels, moved up and down, side to side and was Godzilla of the will enough to make sure that he was in condition to keep the movement constant for 15 rounds and 45 minutes. Above all, I loved Frazier’s cosmic left hook, the way that he would lean a little left then torque to the right, whipsawing eight ounces of Everlast into his opponent, like a guy with a jack hammer breaking up a road.
At the time of their first epic contest in March 1971, both Ali and Frazier were undefeated and swimming in the deep currents of their talents.
Ali was the fleetest of heavyweights in history and Frazier a combination of Henry Armstrong and Rocky Marciano, a man who wore down his opponents with his relentless pace, power punching, and his ability to absorb punishment.
As the bout approached, Ali warmed to the fact that interest had spilled far beyond the borders of boxing. The fight game has always thrived on symbolic and sublimated forms of racial/ethnic struggles. Frazier, who just wanted the boxing match to be a boxing match, was born and raised under hardscrabble conditions in Beaufort, S.C. As a teenager, he had to flee Jim Crow country for throttling a white man over a racial slur.
Though he has since publicly repented, Ali somehow succeeded in casting Smokin’ Joe as a soldier for the powers that be and the white race. It is hard to think of something that could have cut Frazier more deeply than making him an outsider to his people.
Frazier, who had lent both emotional and financial support to Ali when he was exiled from boxing, felt personally betrayed. In the hours before the fi ght, Frazier, who was otherwise at home in the glint of anger and violence, smoldered with a rage toward Ali that troubled Frazier’s conscience.
The Muses, who usually restrict their visits to painters and poets, were in the Garden on fight night. During the first three rounds, Ali taunted Frazier in an effort to sap his confidence. Again and again, Ali whispered, “Joe, you can’t beat me tonight. I’m God. You can’t beat God.” Frazier snorted, “Then God gonna get a whuppin’ tonight.”
The momentum of the fight tilted back and forth and seemed close going into the 15th round. Frazier had marched through fusillade after fusillade of combinations, which, unlike any other heavyweight before or since, Ali could deliver in full retreat. As he came out for the final three minutes, Frazier’s face looked as though he had been introduced to a windshield in a car crash. Practically blind in his left eye to begin with, Frazier had to move Ali to his right. In mid-round Frazier had Ali in the crosshairs and sprang forward with a wide left hook. The punch detonated on the right side of Ali’s face, and he sailed backward onto his famous rump. As courageous a fighter as I have ever seen, Ali arose from Frazier’s masterstroke and finished the round punching.
At the end of the night, Frazier’s hand was raised. Ali went to a hospital and Joe to the news conference. Within a few hours it became clear that Frazier had pushed his body beyond the red line; his blood pressure would not come down, and he was spirited away to a hospital, where he hovered between life and death for a week. It was a spirit-jarring performance and demonstration of the will. Even thirty years later, writing about “The Fight” brought the thunder down from the mountains and rainy eyes.
There was smoke in my eyes again this summer when I caught an HBO special about the third Ali–Frazier fight, billed as “The Thrilla in Manila.” Like the fi rst contest, the third was an aesthetic curiosity—an odd combination of a bout that was as brutal as it was beautiful, or perhaps it would be more apt to say the bout was beautiful because of its brutality.
A year before his last encounter with Frazier, Ali had conquered the indomitable George Foreman, a preternaturally powerful puncher who had destroyed Frazier in two rounds. In 1975, Ali and his brain trust figured that Frazier was all smoke and no fire anymore. In the run up to the fight, Ali’s mind games crossed the line into ugliness.
Ali is a kind individual who loves people, but he has always had a sadistic streak for black fighters who seriously challenged him. He tortured both Ernie Terrell and Floyd Patterson and this time, he likened Frazier to a gorilla. On national television, he called Frazier “stupid” and an ‘Uncle Tom.” Before the fight, “Smoke” received death threats and his children were mercilessly teased in school. Without any theological qualms, the devoutly Christian Frazier prayed that God would give him the power to do this “scambooga” in.
When the hour came, Frazier moved towards the ring in a nearly homicidal rage. Like the first fight, this one went back and forth. Ali was peppering Frazier for the first few rounds with lefts and rights. He even staggered him a couple of times and then just as in their first meeting, Frazier found a gear, got in close and went to work with left hooks to the body and uppercuts to the head. Frazier’s father, whom he worked beside, only had one arm and Joe was always considered a one-armed fighter — a left hook artist. But in Manila, Frazier started to drop right hands in on the Lancelot of the left.
The fight was staged at 4 a.m. so that it could be broadcast live in the States. The temperature hovered at around 104 degrees in the ring with near 100 percent humidity. After the 10th round a spent Ali came back to the corner and hoarsely whispered, “This is as close to death as it gets.”
Once known as the Louisville Lip, Ali always demonstrated superhuman courage and the resolve to match his talk. Amazingly, in round 12, Ali began again to take control of the contest. Frazier’s right eye was nearly shut from absorbing Ali’s hurricane blows. But Joe was still driving forward and punching. He was still very dangerous. Though Angelo Dundee, Ali’s cornerman, denies it, some insist that at the end of the next-to-last stanza, a thoroughly exhausted Ali instructed his corner, “cut the gloves off.” But after the 14th round, Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, asked Joe if he could see Ali. Frazier answered, “No, but I can still feel him.” There was a pause. Frazier was adamant about campaigning on. However, Futch had personally witnessed a number of ring deaths. He reminded Joe that he had a family and insisted that he was not going to let Frazier get permanently injured. He was going to stop the fight. Frazier protested but then, as though he were a war machine, sighed, “shut it down.” It is the “it” that always gets me. Frazier barely spoke to Futch for twenty years afterward.
In his book The Ghosts of Manila, the late Mark Kram stepped forward to try to protect the noble Frazier from the waters of oblivion. As his title suggests, Kram understood that both Frazier and Ali gave so much in that fight that they were evermore ghosts of themselves.
In the documentary about the final panel of their fistic triptych Frazier is framed watching the film of the “Thrilla” for the first time. Clad in a pink satin boxing robe, the sixty something warrior is bug eyed and slack jawed, by turns, smiling, wincing, muttering—astounded by his work and the punishment he was taking. My face grew as hot as stone in the sun as I watched him watching himself. There was a catch in my throat, and there I was, crying again — for Joe Frazier. Go figure.
Other articles by Gordon Marino
Send an e-mail to Gordon Marino
A former boxer, Gordon Marino
was head boxing coach
at Virginia Military Institute
and now runs a boxing program
in Northfield, Minn.,
where he teaches philosophy
at St. Olaf College.
He also writes about boxing
for the Wall Street Journal.
Logos on this page were created by