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When boxing great Joe Frazier died last week, the media managed to say nice things about Smokin’ Joe without ever detailing how they and their chosen one of the moment, Muhammad Ali, conspired to ruin Frazier’s life.
I got a sense of this in March 1971, when my friends from grad school and I drove from Purdue to watch a large screen presentation of the first Ali-Frazier fight.
Given the imperatives of student poverty, we headed not south to Indianapolis, which was 40 miles closer, but north to Gary, which was five dollars cheaper.
The moment we walked into the theater, however, I understood what the others did not: Five bucks or no, Gary was a mistake, especially for me as I, almost uniquely, was rooting for Frazier.
I always liked Joe’s grit. In June of 1957, the 13-year-old Frazier decided that he’d had enough of school. So he quit and went to work full time on a series of backbreaking jobs in and around Beaufort, S.C.
Compared to Beaufort, Muhammad Ali’s Louisville was an Eleanor Roosevelt garden party. “Let’s just say,” remembered Frazier of Beaufort, “that its attitudes had me wanting to leave there from the time I was a boy.”
One day, without fanfare, Frazier packed his bags, headed down to the Greyhound station and bought a one-way ticket for New York on “the dog.”
“It was 1959,” Frazier recalled. “I was 15 years old and on my own.”
Upon arriving in Philadelphia, Frazier got a job at the slaughterhouse. Although the job paid well enough, he “hated being ordinary.”
At 17, he spied a glimpse of a larger destiny at a boxing gym, this one run by the police. By the age of 20, he had won the Olympic heavyweight championship in 1964.
This carcass-punching, street-running, Rocky-like figure should have been the toast of Philadelphia, but he never was. Ali and the young liberals then taking over the media saw to that.
In a divided nation, Ali had assigned an unlikely role to Frazier, that of traitor to his race and titular leader of the forces of reaction.
The parallels to the treatment of Herman Cain are hard to miss. On NPR this week, former Time writer Jack White described Cain as playing “a minstrel” for white Republicans.
“Black people know that if Herman Cain had his way, their lives would be diminished,” announced Harvard professor Randall Kennedy on the same show.
Frazier, however, lacked Cain’s rhetorical skills and his access to an alternative media. He was on his own, painted into a corner by Ali and his sycophants in an increasingly anti-war press.
“Anybody black who thinks Frazier can whup me is an Uncle Tom,” said Ali at the time. “Everybody who’s black wants me to keep on winning.”
Moved to anger by the mainstream media and Ali, the hardcore faithful threatened Frazier and his family by mail and phone. The police put a watch on Frazier, his wife and his children. History had proven that Ali’s Nation of Islam colleagues were capable of killing.
Even in Philadelphia, the black community turned against the imagined race-traitor, Frazier. Schoolmates teased his son, Marvis, that his father was an Uncle Tom.
The taunting of his children cut deepest of all. “[Ali] set out to cut me down, and hurt me,” wrote Frazier in his autobiography, “the only way he knew how – with his lying, jiving mouth.”
The irony, of course, is that in almost every meaningful way, Joe Frazier led a “blacker” life than Ali, just as Cain has led a conspicuously “blacker” life than Obama.
Most obviously, Frazier was darker. Ali had two white great grandparents. Frazier had none. He had proud Gullah roots, a black manager and trainer, and an integrated management team.
“I grew up like the black man – he didn’t,” Frazier would tell Sports Illustrated. “I cooked the liquor. I cut the wood. I worked the farm. I lived in the ghetto.”
The irony stung. “He had a white man in the corner and those rich plantation people to fund him,” Frazier wrote bitterly of Ali. “A white lawyer kept him out of jail. And he’s going to Uncle Tom me?”
Ali and his supporters abused the people who pulled for Joe Frazier even more than they abused Frazier himself. Fight manager Dave Wolf watched Ali on TV one night with Frazier.
“The only people rooting for Joe Frazier,” he remembers Ali saying, “are white people in suits, Alabama sheriffs and members of the Ku Klux Klan.” Enraged, Frazier smashed his fist mutely into his hand as he watched. Says Wolf, “It was cruel. That’s all.”
That night in 1971, in Gary and beyond, no fight had so racially polarized America since Jack Johnson squared off against Jim Jeffries in Reno 60 years earlier.
This, I thought, is what Ali had wrought. He had the crowd not so much pulling for him as against the imagined race traitor, Joe Frazier, and anyone, black or white, who dared cheer for him.
Still, the fight proved to be worth the risk. It was both brutal and brilliant as only great fights can be. Going into the 15th, it seemed to all of us too close to call.
“OK,” I said to my friends between rounds, “we’re out of here.” They thought me daft and resisted. I explained patiently that if Ali lost a fight that the crowd expected him to win, there would be hell to pay, and as four of a handful of white people in the crowd we’d likely do the paying. “But we’re for Ali,” they protested.
How had it come to this? I wondered. How could so many seemingly smart young Americans be so utterly delusional? I wondered the same thing in 2008 about a man whose claim to black heroism was far more tenuous than Ali’s.
In the years that followed, equally smart young intellectuals would routinely sing Ali’s praises not just as a boxer, but as a man of conscience, a peacemaker, a racial healer, a Mandela, a Gandhi. Sound familiar?
All but alone in his public dissent, Joe Frazier insisted otherwise. “What has he done so great for this world?” he asked rhetorically of Ali. “Everything that he has done was against this country.”
That sounds familiar too and a lot closer to the bone.