Ali v Frazier: the fight rages on
Their epic battles in the early 70s enthralled the sporting world, but 25 years on Joe Frazier still has not forgiven Muhammad Ali for the taunts and insults that were an integral part of a unique sporting rivalry
Saturday 26 October 1996
Howard Winstone had barely arrived in Mexico City to watch the 1968 Olympic Games when he found himself out on the town with Vicente Saldivar, against whom he had three titanic struggles for the featherweight title. "I hadn't set eyes on Saldivar since our third scrap but somehow he discovered I was there and I had a great time with him," the Welshman recalled.
Probably, in the imagination of most people, no two fighters are drawn closer by this mysterious, dignifying bond than Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, who fought each other three times, twice in championship bouts that for drama and intensity are considered to be without equal in the annals of boxing.
A sad fact, however, one made brutally clear in a recently published autobiography, Smokin' Joe, is that Frazier can find only bitterness in his heart for the stricken former three-times heavyweight champion.
"Truth is," Frazier told his ghostwriter, Phil Berger, "I'd like to rumble with that sucker again - beat him up piece by piece and mail him back to Jesus... Now people ask me if I feel bad for him, now that things aren't going so well for him. Nope. I don't. I don't give a damn. They want me to love him, but I'll open up the graveyard and bury his ass when the Lord chooses to take him."
Known for years among people in boxing, Frazier's deep-rooted resentment was first aired publicly at a press conference in Atlanta in July where he spoke out vehemently against the choice of Ali as the final bearer of the Olympic torch. Calling up the past in a rambling diatribe, he dismissed Ali as a "draft dodger", implied racism - "didn't like his white brothers" - and suggested that he himself, as the Olympic champion at heavyweight in 1964, would have been a better selection to light the flame. "Why not! I'm a good American... a champion is more than making noise. I could have run up there; I'm in shape."
Worse was the savage remark Frazier uttered after watching Ali raise the torch with a trembling arm while millions worldwide looked on anxiously. "It would have been a good thing if he had lit the torch and fallen in. If I had the chance, I would have pushed him in."
Asked to comment on Ali's condition recently, the laboured movements and speech difficulties symptomatic of Parkinson's Syndrome -which in Ali's case is most likely the result of repeated blows to the head - Frazier mimed the murderous left hook that brought him from a dirt-poor childhood to the pinnacle of boxing, and said to Bill Nack, of the American magazine Sports Illustrated: "He's got Joe Frazier-itis."
As Nack states, nobody struck Ali's head harder and more repeatedly than Frazier. So why the total absence of compassion, the bitterness that rises like bile in Frazier whenever Ali's name occurs in conversation?
There is a clue in Frazier's refusal to call Ali other than by the name he was given. Never Ali, always Clay. "When I first began knowing Clay, he wasn't a bad guy to be around," Frazier told Berger. "We'd talk and joke the way friends do. Not that we were what you would call friends. There was always an edge that kept us from being real close. But we got on... then came the problem with the Selective Service [Ali's refusal to be drafted for Vietnam], and Clay's life became more complicated. And difficult. The sucker couldn't be certain he'd ever fight again. Me? I was always there for the guy. The whole time Clay was stripped of his title, I never said a bad word about him, even though I didn't agree with what he'd done... Sometimes the press would try to get me to badmouth Clay, or trash his religion. But I never played along with that. I'd tell them his religion was his own business."
It was on Ali's return from exile that Frazier felt the first stirrings of paranoia. He was the heavyweight champion, a solid citizen, but Ali, his stand against the Vietnam war vindicated by the realisation of its futility, represented, for an increasing number of whites as well as the majority of blacks, a force for social change.
"THEE Greatest, he called himself," Frazier said. "Well, he wasn't The Greatest, and he certainly wasn't THEE Greatest. Whatever God you pray to, whatever direction you face when you go to your knees, there's only one THEE. But this scamboogah had the nerve to put himself above the Lord. Well, it became my mission to show him the error of foolish pride. Beat him into it."
What hurt Frazier most was the demeaning personal nature of Ali's rhetoric. "Clay has since stated that he was only selling tickets," Frazier goes on, "but there were things, hurtful things, that I couldn't stomach. To hear it from him, I was a lame specimen of a black man, a kind of Stepin' Fetchit in boxing trunks. He said that I wasn't a real champion and called me an Uncle Tom... cruel and unworthy. And in its way sadistic. Clay knew the facts - knew the hard road I'd travelled. Knew the struggle a black man had, growing up in Beaufort, South Carolina. Knew that in saying what he did, he was playing me cheap and leaving Joe Frazier, and his children, open to ridicule - worse, he was encouraging it, leaving me to see on a cover of a black magazine, Black Sports, a blurb asking: `Is Joe Frazier a White Champion in a Black Skin?'"
During the five years between their first momentous contest at Madison Square Garden on 8 March 1971, and the thunder of their final meeting, in Manila on 1 October 1975, Frazier found himself completely overshadowed by the supreme sports figure of this century.
Nack writes: "He [Frazier] is haunted by his old tormentor, the very figure he did most to create. Frazier was one of the greatest of all gladiators but today he finds himself cast as just another player in the far larger drama of Ali's life. He is trapped and wriggling in the Ali mystique, embedded in the amber of Ali's times."
Ali treads carefully now, each step a measure of impairment, but there is no release for Frazier. That old light-up-the-room grin. "Joe Fraysha?" he mumbles. "You seen the gorilla? From Manila?"
Manila left them utterly exhausted, broken by a contest of such savagery that when Eddie Futch scissored the gloves from Frazier's hands at the end of the 14th round he was fearing for his fighter's life.
What followed left a scar on Frazier's mind. "Bruised, weary and dehydrated in that dressing-room in Quezon City, I wasn't thinking about the place in history this fight I'd just fought would have. I had lost, and that was as deep as my reality went. While I sat there, applying the ice pack to my eyes, word came from Clay's dressing-room that he wanted to see Marvis [Frazier's son].
"When Marvis got over there, Clay was lying on a padded table. His skin was ashy and his right eye discoloured. His lower lip was scraped pink. There were welts and bruises all over his body. He looked like a wax museum version of himself. When he saw Marvis, he struggled to sit up and shake his hand. Then he said, `Tell your father all the stuff I said about him - I didn't mean it. Your father's a helluva man. I couldn't have taken the punches he took today.'
"Well, it may have satisfied Clay's conscience to excuse his years of trashing me like that. And it may have touched Marvis's heart to hear it from the scamboogah's lips. But it didn't change a goddam thing for me. Why tell it to Marvis? Why not be man enough to say what he felt to me, to my face? Yeah, he'd proven himself in the ring - I'd give him that. He'd stood up to punches that would have put holes in concrete. But as a man, Clay was so knee-deep in ego that in the end he couldn't bring himself to do the right thing."
A darker side to Ali showed itself after he joined the Black Muslims in 1964. "Essentially a sweet guy," Ali's ring doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, told Nack, "whose whole demeanour aims to amuse, to be entertained, to be liked. But there was a period when he wasn't particularly pleasant to anyone."
In Ali's last but one fight before his licence was revoked in 1967, he gave Ernie Terrell a terrible beating for calling him by the "slave name'': Cassius Clay. "What's my name?" he demanded when pouring punches in Terrell's face, causing him to have double vision for weeks afterwards.
"There was an awful mean streak in Ali," Dave Wolf, then a Frazier associate, told Nack. "And he did to Joe verbally what he did to Terrell physically."
A short while ago Ali learned that an accident had cost Frazier a toe. Aware that he was referred to only as Clay in Frazier's book, Ali rang his biographer, Tom Hauser. "God isn't going to like me for this," he mumbled, "but the nigger deserved it."
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