Sport on TV: Ali gets under Frazier's skin, and Tull fights for recognition
Sunday 16 November 2008
Smokin' Joe is still fuming. As the US civil rights movement reaches its zenith, 'Thriller in Manila' (More 4, Tuesday) laid bare a festering hatred between two of the country's greatest black heroes, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.
Bizarrely, it arose over the issue of race. In 1974, Ali called Frazier an "Uncle Tom" on Michael Parkinson's chatshow, implying that he was working for the white man. Ali had embraced the Nation of Islam black segregationists and deplored the fact Frazier was supported by a group of white Philadelphia businessmen.
Yet it was Frazier who had petitioned to have Ali's boxing licence restored after he refused to go to Vietnam. As Ali's "fight doctor", Ferdie Pacheco, said, the Nation's exploitation of their freedom fighter was "the ultimate manipulation of anyone I've ever seen". Who was really selling out? Ali spoke at a Ku Klux Klan rally when the Nation were considering forming a pact. Frazier had worked for the white man – in the fields of South Carolina from the age of seven. Even when he returned as world champion, Frazier was turned away when he tried to cash a cheque in a local bank.
In the Philippines in 1975, Ali kept referring to Frazier as a "gorilla". He later said he was only trying to publicise the fight, but away from the limelight he stood below Frazier's hotel balcony brandishing a gun. It showed just how unbalanced the great ring dancer had become.
It was ironic that the Manila fight should end with Frazier unable to see: that two such leading lights failed to see eye to eye; that such an intelligent sportsman as Ali was myopic about the psychological damage he caused. Frazier glories in being the man who caused Ali's physical decline. His answer machine bears the message: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, I done the job, he knows, look and see". Now that really is unforgivable.
The pioneering black footballer Walter Tull was subjected to such intense racial abuse when Spurs visited Bristol in 1909 that the London club offloaded him. 'Walter Tull: Forgotten Hero' (BBC4, Thursday) told his remarkable story. In 1914, he signed up for the Footballers' Battalion, created in a bid to persuade fans to enlist. So distinguished was his service that he became the first black officer in the British Army, even though it was against regulations. The next black officer didn't come along for another 23 years.
Tull never made it home, and his story was lost in the mud of the Somme. Now, 25 per cent of Premier League players are black, but the years of abuse they had to endure might have been mitigated by memories of the man who, according to an appalled reporter at that Bristol match, was "a model for all white men who play football".
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