Requiem for a Heavyweight
Joe Frazier, who died last month of liver cancer at age sixty-seven, was a reluctant partner in his legendary bouts with Muhammad Ali. Alone time was impossible. In Frazier’s own obituary, there was Ali, the venerable one, sharing column space. If you didn’t know anything about Frazier, you’d think he was another palooka in Ali’s path toward a vaguely defined sainthood.
Frazier could be the most overlooked champion in modern sports history. The owner of a devastating left hook and a relentless work ethic, Frazier won an Olympic gold medal and the heavyweight championship of the world. In three fights with Ali, Frazier won once (defending his title) and pounded the legend. But the respect was never there—not from Ali, who cruelly insulted Frazier non-stop, or in his adopted hometown of Philadelphia, which for some incomprehensible reason chose to honor the fictitious, working-class marblemouth Rocky Balboa.
Late in life, Frazier forgave Ali. One can only hope that forgiveness bred clarity. By whooping Ali, Frazier became more than a placeholder until the next Jack Dempsey or Joe Louis came along. Enduring Frazier’s punishing blows, years after besting Sonny Liston, buoyed Ali’s reputation. “He needed a hard, serious man to put him in relief, to put him at risk,” writes Mark Kram, who covered both men as Sports Illustrated’s boxing scribe in the 1960s and 1970s. “Without it, a fight is pantomime, drama buckles.”
That is from Kram’s 2001 book, Ghosts of Manila, a glorious examination of Ali and Frazier’s destructive path toward (and beyond) greatness. It’s a face slap of a read. Kram, who passed away in 2002, was a grand stylist but a hard realist. He builds the pageantry of those fights but not while peeling it away to reveal two broken men. In that regard, Frazier had the advantage over Ali, whose health has badly deteriorated since his “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” heyday. “I did that to him,” Frazier was known to boast of the present-day Ali, jittery and silent and revered.
The resentment started long before they faced each other in their three great fights, culminating in 1975's “Thrilla in Manila.” Frazier actually respected Ali, lending him money during Ali’s banishment from pro boxing and even lobbying for his reinstatement. These acts infuriated Frazier’s manager, Yank Durham, who knew Ali was using him. At a 1969 press conference geared to establish the two fighters as “inseparable rivals,” Durham was proven right. Ali tore into Frazier, Kram writes, calling him an Uncle Tom, a classless fighter, and a coward. The two nearly came to blows in a Philadelphia park and scuffled after appearing on The Mike Douglas Show the next day.
Frazier was not blessed with Ali’s charisma or ability to make words sing. But was Ali really that great? He's considered a hero for sticking to his Muslim beliefs and not participating in the Vietnam War. Kram writes that such worship is “a legacy that evolves from the intellectually loose sixties, from those who were in school then and now write romance history.” He then adds:
The sad truth was that Ali was played like a harp by the [Black] Muslims, a daft cult with a long record of draft dodging from [leader] Elijah [Muhammad] (who went to prison) on down. His posture was not about unjust war, it was mainly a stratagem by the Muslims to put themselves on the revolutionary scoreboard, to flex their power and image. Everyone who knew anything about racial politics then knew the press exposure given them was extravagant. They were into profit and running things like Papa Doc ran Haiti. They were, in fact, anti-civil rights, despised Martin Luther King, and nowhere near as serious as the Panthers, who were anarchic, helpful to the poor, and “ready to die on the spot.” Malcolm X had wanted Ali to be a man of the world, to be a leader. Ali, mindlessly or fearfully, settled for being attached to a string on an old man’s hand in Chicago.
Ali’s status as an independent icon of the turbulent sixties and seventies came about via circumstance, Kram claims, not because he was any great orator. Kram compares Ali to Chauncey Gardener, the simpleton turned sage in Jerzy Kosinski’s novel Being There.
Each group would attach their own values to him, just as Chauncey’s talk of topsoil and the life cycle of the rhododendron was inflated into cosmic wisdom. Being There could be seen as a remark on the sixties, the willingness, the desperation to believe anybody in the face of intellectually destitute leaders, searching, confused, perhaps evil in blind resolution. Ali could not have picked a better time for campus exposure. The social and political climate finally matched him stride for stride. An Old America had abused his rights and isolated him, now a new one was suddenly by his side. It was a sky lit with the celebration of chaos.
As Frazier tells Kram, “What he ever do for people but give ‘em a lot of silly words?”
Sometimes Kram’s demystification of Ali borders on overkill, while the withering criticism on notable figures like Howard Cosell and Bryant Gumbel feels unnecessary, even uncomfortable. But these harsh asides reveal Frazier'’s inescapable fate: He was permanently cast as the moronic heavy to Ali’s eloquent hero, the latter a designation that occurred via cultural happenstance. Frazier only got to show his worth in the ring, and he still lost to Ali two out of three times, which only increased his nemesis’s worldwide esteem. The colossal ego and yes men and epic sexual appetite couldn't diminish Ali’s talents as a fighter. Frazier really couldn’t win.
In Ghosts of Manila, their fights maintain their epic glow. Kram’s forte may have been capturing flaws and moods—he once said he wanted to write like Edward Hopper painted—but a good fight clearly inspired him. He was a crack wordsmith built for SI’s meaty word counts and stylistic leniency. Witness these two gems from Manila: “With nonstop digging, a wild boar going for a truffle, Joe jerked up out of the pit and sent out—Splat! Splat!—two evil left hooks to Ali's head.” Ali is just about done, “his face a forlorn long shot of Death Valley at the end of an Antonioni lens.” But somehow Ali rose again, and into the warm crevices of our memories.
Like Dan Jenkins’ revolutionary football coverage, Kram did not worship at the altar of the 5 Ws. As Michael MacCambridge explained in The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine, Kram’s boxing pieces "revealed much about how the real world was experiencing the sporting world, often using it as a proxy for cultural wars.” In Ghosts of Manila, Kram actually finds fault with Gumbel and others for using Ali and Frazier as pawns in the big, scary, ever-changing culture. It came down to two men fighting for themselves. Frazier wasn’t the only loser. “A couple of ghosts if you ask me,” Frazier’s former business manager, Burt Watson, tells Kram. “One is still in the ring in Manila, the other doesn't know there was a Manila. It was a bad reckoning for both, that day.”
There is no better person to tell this story than Kram, whom SI colleague Bud Shrake called “the most tortured writer I’ve ever known in my life.” According to MacCambridge, the magazine dismissed Kram in 1977 for “gross misconduct”—SI suspected he had taken a pay-off from Don King for extolling his corrupt “box-off,” a charge it could never prove. Though recognized as a great talent, Kram never reached the lofty status of Jenkins or Frank Deford. He could be reckless, decking a female coworker at a party and locking horns with Norman Mailer at another. Even landing at the nation’s premier sports publication came from sadness. The Pittsburgh Pirates signed Kram out of high school, but a fastball to the head prematurely ended his baseball career. Without a college degree, Kram developed his writing style by grabbing a job at The Baltimore Sun and reading books he deemed worthy. “He wrote as though he believed that the best stories, like the best songs, are the sad ones, and sometimes he lived sad stories himself,” sportswriter John Schulian wrote in a 2002 tribute to Kram. “He knew perhaps more than he should have about pain, failure, and disgrace, but given time and inspiration, he could transform them all into things of beauty.”
In Ghosts of Manila, Kram parted the seas of mythology, exposing the rocky, trash-strewn floor. Sports are built around flash and bluster and other facades, which could be why so many people never warmed to Joe Frazier: he reminded us of boxing’s not-so glitzy reality. “Ali’s flash, dance, wit, and poetics, on his toes and onstage, so astonished and charmed they beguiled and bewildered us about the facts,” Scott Simon writes in Home and Away: Memoir of a Fan. “Boxing is intended to beat a man senseless.”
Books mentioned in this column: