Joe Frazier died last night. He was a very important figure in my childhood and his fights with Ali, which took place when I was in middle and high school, taught me a lot about race, class and masculinity. The big shadow Ali cast distorted Frazier’s public character.
It’s hard to recapture what a big deal boxing was in the 60s and 70s. A big heavyweight bout drew staggering media attention, like the Super Bowl today. The Frazier-Ali fights were loaded with extra resonance because the two men were so different, and because of the politics of the 60s.
Ali was like Jack Johnson on steroids. Flashy, arrogant, a braggart, fast, pretty, taunting. Even more, by the late 60s he was “political,” renouncing his “slave name” (Cassius Clay, not a slave name at all if you know anything about his namesake), converting to Islam and refusing to serve in Vietnam.
The five boys in my family were raised–like most American boys then–with an ethic of masculinity that prized action over talk, disdained boasting as unseemly and cheap, and cast male physical vanity as effeminacy. Add to that the Philadelphia area chip on the shoulder: working class, stolid, admiring doggedness and responsibility and determination and toughness. Frazier fit this mold.
He didn’t brag, he wasn’t clever, he didn’t dance, he wasn’t tall; he kept his head down and came straight at his opponent, dogged, relentless. Like a guy trudging to work with his lunchbox in his hand. We were raised to abhor racism and wanted to see Frazier in class terms, as a working class underdog facing the show-offy, boastful fancy-pants Ali. We always rooted for Frazier.
Ali always made me uneasy. I mostly admired his stance on the Vietnam war, and his political critiques of American racism made sense to me, even as a kid. He was right to be mad about it. But his other qualities–was it racism that made me uneasy? Ali was the very dictionary definition of “uppity.” People who wrote about boxing often tended cast Ali as the anti-establishment character. Was fondness for Frazier, his humility, his apolitical stance, fondness for a black man who knew his place? On the other hand, Joe Frazier was very much a “Philadelphia” kinda guy. It was very hard to sort these feelings out.
Later on I learned to value things that made me uneasy, because they were making me think. The Ali-Frazier fights got people thinking about a lot of things: they were more than boxing matches. They were competing styles of masculinity and public conduct. Ali’s capacity to make people uneasy was why he was the more impressive guy.
But it’s wrong to just see Frazier as some kind of “establishment” tool. His appeal had a lot of class resentment in it, and he spoke to the ethic of doggedness and letting actions speak louder than words. In the world of modern sports, where they have to penalize players to reign the taunting in, there’s something clean and appealing about Frazier’s no-nonsense, no-hype attitude and persona.
RIP, and thanks for making a teenage kid think.
I wonder if there wasn’t a bit of synthesis between the two in their later years. Ali did seem to tone down the rhetoric; how humbling must it be to do rope-a-dope commercials. I also recall seeing Smokin’ Joe on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson a few times singing lead in with a back-up band known as Joe Frazier and the Knockouts. So perhaps he did learn a little of the flash fron Ali.