Growing up, my memories of my grandmother revolved around boxing. She was a tiny woman, barely five feet tall, but when “the fight” was on TV my grandmother would transform into a completely different person—up on her feet, fists jabbing into the air at an unknown opponent. “Andale, andale!” she’d scream at the television, convinced the fighters could hear every word.
One of her favorite fighters was Muhammad Ali. She loved the brashness of his trash talk, how he “[floated] like a butterly” and “[stung] like a bee.” I’m not here to disregard Ali; he is one of the greatest fighters that’s stepped in the ring and he did indeed have a way with words (“Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see”). However, if there was one fighter who embodied the sport for me, it would be “Smokin‘ Joe” Frazier, who died of cancer yesterday at the age of 67.
Some say Frazier fought in the shadow of Ali, but I’ve always believed him to be the better fighter—even if the two will be forever linked by their three epic fights between ‘71 and ‘75. Frazier wasn’t one to taunt his opponents before a fight like Ali; he let his work in the ring do all the talking. 32-4-1 record. 1964 Olympic gold medal. Undisputed World Heavyweight boxing champion. None of that came from self-promotion. He hailed from the Henry Armstrong school of boxing, bobbing and weaving as he let all his aggression pour out and wore down his opponents relentlessly. I loved how Frazier never stood back in a fight, always willing to take a few punches as he waited for the right opportunity to throw his infamous left hook. No one would say his fighting style was pretty, but pretty never won real fights. Fight of the Century. Thrilla in Manila. Those were real fights, before “extreme” and “ultimate” were ever adjectives for boxing. For a sport, as Time referred to it, “lost in the labyrinth of pay-per-view,” maybe it’s time to look back at where boxing lost its spirit.
March 8, 1971. Madison Square Garden. The Fight of the Century. The beginning of the great trilogy. For the first 11 rounds, the fight could have gone either way, but right near the end of round 11 Frazier backed Ali into a corner and threw a crushing left hook that almost knocked Ali to the ground. However, that was a premonition for what was soon to come in the match’s final round. Both boxers swollen and visibly tired, the blow came early when Frazier landed his left hook on Ali’s jaw, knocking him on his back for only the third time in his career. As the clock ticked at the end of the final round, only one man was bobbing and weaving triumphantly on his feet—and that was Frazier. Always a fighter. Always with class.
Larry Merchant reflected on the fight best in the following segment he wrote the following day, March 9, 1971, for the New York Post:
“Muhammad Ali fought a truth machine last night, and the truth that emerged was painfully clear. The arrogance and hubris that made Ali a great champion made him a former champion.
“You can’t con Joe Frazier for 15 round. Joe Frazier comes at you too honestly, too openly. He lets you find out what you have inside you. It is going to take an honest man made of stern stuff to beat him. Ali was not honest enough last night.
“Ali went to the Garden last night to paint a masterpiece, to put on a great show, and he put on a great show; a fight of primitive fury and insolence, punctuated by ghetto gamesmanship. But Joe Frazier was not in Ali’s plans for the show. And, ultimately, that is where he went wrong.”
Boxing is man at its most primitive form. Alone in the ring, under the microscope of millions of eyes, the second a boxer steps through the ropes he is a stripped of all pretenses. There is no hiding when a punch is thrown. When a fist hits skin, it bruises. When a boxer falls, he struggles to stand up. Merchant is dead-on about Frazier, a boxer who was never afraid to display his struggles, “snorting and grunting and puffing, like a steam engine climbing a steep grade,” as Philadelphia Inquirer’s Bill Lyon wrote.
Yesterday we lost a true champion. However, we lost a long time ago when fights meant more than just what happened in the ring. Ali, who refused induction into the U.S. Army in 1967, was a symbol of the anti-establishment movement while Frazier stood for the pro-war movement. A fight between black and white America, between the Establishment and the Revolution. A fight that we’re still battling today, evidently. You may ask, where have the true fighters gone? Andale, andale!
Photograph by Cliffords Photography.