Rest in peace, Joe Frazier, Olympic gold medalist, world heavyweight champion, and beautiful human being.
When people lionize Muhammed Ali, I've always said, "What about how he treated Frazier?" In the pre-fight press conferences before their first match, Ali flung racist rhetoric at Joe, calling him a stupid gorilla, and accusing him of being an Uncle Tom.
Frazier was far from an Uncle Tom; he was a tough, proud Philly fighter who came up hard in the racist South. In the documentary Facing Ali, Joe grows emotional as he speaks of Ali's insults: "It was like voices were coming into his head. I couldn't tell you who they were coming from because I don't know. But if you ain't got something right to say to me, then you better keep your quiet, because I'm gonna peel off and hit you."
He blinks back a tear. "Because there's nothing for me to do but just walk straight. Walk right."
Joe got his revenge the only way he knew how. In that first match in Madison Square Garden he won a beautiful unanimous decision that included one of the best left hooks in history.
Frazier describes preparing for this fight by working out in the gym for 30 minutes straight, no round breaks, while listening to James Brown. That's the way he fought, too. He was relentless in his aggression with a gorgeous, forward-surging rhythm.
Here he is in his North Philly gym, now closed. I passed through there in 1999 when I was still fighting. It was sleepy and atmospheric and there was kind of a sad feeling about the place, but maybe that's just where I was in my life. Everyone was very welcoming. I sparred with a nice guy named Marvin, while an older trainer yelled out things like, "If you ain't the hammer, you the nail."
At that time, Frazier's daughter Jacqui was getting ready for her match with Laila Ali. Jacqui was way bigger than me, so we never sparred. She was a 40-something lawyer with kids and I believe she took the fight with the 20-something Leila out of pure family feeling. All good daughters want to vanquish their father's enemies. The hyped Leila was never much of a fighter, and the fact that Jacqui fought her to a majority decision proves it.
One morning I showed up early and there was nobody in Frazier's Gym except me and Joe. He looked like he had been up all night. He was mad about an event he'd gone to the night before, where he felt he'd been slighted. The morning light was slanting through the gym windows as I stood awkwardly before one of the heavy bags putting on my handwraps. Joe Frazier stalked around me, fuming. His anger was like a physical force. It was pretty intimidating.
Then he stopped and laughed, and I thought: I will always remember this moment. Because it was like he was laughing at everything: at himself, at his pain, at me, standing there in my pigtails and pink sweats. To me, that laugh is what boxing is all about.
Trainer Eddie Futch had a hell of a time convincing Frazier to quit on his stool after 14 rounds with Ali in the Thrilla in Manila. Even though Frazier could barely see, he still wanted to answer the bell in a fight that Ali would later call the closest thing he'd ever felt to death.
"Sit down, son," Eddie told Joe. "It's all over. No one will ever forget what you did today."