Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Smokin' Joe

There's something to write about every week, and that applies this week, too. I could try to tackle the Herman Cain thing, which seems to be quickly becoming a matter of he said - they said. The man denies (today, anyway) even knowing yesterday's accuser. Anyway, I wasn't there, and things in this matter are subject to daily change.
That last also applies to the Penn State scandal, in which colleagues have had to choose between protecting children or a fellow coach. And no, I don't know if or how this affects the dwindling career of the university's 85 year-old coach.
But I was around during the rise and decline of the sports world's dead athlete of the week, former boxing heavyweight champion "Smokin' Joe" Frazier, who just passed away from cancer. He was in his sixties.
We don't think much about boxing now. The greed of the promoters and managers finally became too much to ignore. The average American would now be hard pressed to name more than one or two active boxers. But it wasn't always this way. Boxing and horse racing were the nation's most popular sports coming into the 20th century.
It wasn't uncommon to have championship fights, or even non-title bouts on TV during the 1950's into the 70's. Every person in those days knew the name of the heavyweight champion, if not the other weights. This was Frazier's time.
Of course, you cannot talk about "Smokin' Joe" without filling in the picture with the biggest boxing name of all - Muhammed Ali. Ali's outsized personality was such a change from the old model of boxers (especially black boxers) who spoke in short, simple sentences that he constantly hogged the spotlight. Some of his competitors didn't seem to mind this so much. Others, like Frazier, resented the flamboyant Ali, at least in public, feeling he was entitled to but not getting his fair share of adulation. He would always refer to Ali as "Clay", the original surname of Cassius Clay.
Frazier became champion during the time Ali was banned from the sport because of his resistance to the military draft. When the Supreme Court reversed that, unanimously, I might add, the Ali camp scheduled several fights intended to prepare him to re-take the title from Frazier. The first title fight between the two took place in March of 1971 in New York's Madison Square Garden. It went the distance, but Frazier kept the title by scoring a knockdown in the final (15th) round. It was an instant classic.
There were two more Ali-Frazier fights, one a rematch in New York, the other one held in the Phillipines, the fight we remember as the "Thrilla in Manilla". Ali won both, the last one when Frazier's eyes became so puffed up that he could no longer see. Both fighters spent the night in local hospitals following that one.
Frazier wasn't a particularly big man. He was just under six feet tall, nor was he have a long reach or blinding speed. What he did have was the ability to keep moving forward, moving his head and throwing punches in a way that made you think he would gladly give up three or four jabs to score one himself. The man was fearless, unsurpassed at taking punishment.
His life wasn't marred by scandal. He helped his own son in his boxing career, which came up well short of the father's. As far as I know he never ran out of money, nor was he forced to glad- hand at casinos or sign his name thousands of times to pay the bills. The folks of his native Philadelphia never stopped honoring him, even using him as a kind of role model since Ali was considered unique and therefore inimitable.
The movie about the important stuff in his life has already been made. Too bad that it was made by Spike Lee about the life of Ali. There won't be a movie about Smokin' Joe, any more than there will be one about Roberto Duran, Sonny Liston or Larry Holmes. Still, as we say goodbye, we honor his contribution to his sport.


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