Mark Steel: How to be a giant and still second best

Joe Frazier's problem was that his most celebrated opponent was much more than a boxer

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Everyone must feel sorry for Joe Frazier, not just because he's died but because his whole life is defined as a part in the more compelling life of Muhammad Ali. Most of the obituaries say something like, "The wonderful thing about Frazier was he gave Ali something to punch. If he hadn't turned up in Manila, Ali would have had to knock out a local peasant, and that would have been all over in seconds but Frazier stood up to keep getting punched for ages which was much more entertaining."

I expect at his funeral the vicar will say, "As we see Joe depart for the final time, let us use this moment to consider the far more impressive accomplishments of Muhammad Ali. Indeed, rather than listen to stuff from his family, let's look at a recording of Ali's iconic defeat of George Foreman, and thank the Lord that at least Ali's still with us, whereas wotsisname seems to have passed on."

Joe's problem is that his most celebrated opponent was much more than a boxer, he was one of the century's most articulate and entertaining rebels. For example, when Ali refused to be drafted into the Army, saying, "I have no quarrel with the Vietcong", this had an immense impact on the black soldiers that made up one third of the US military. And everyone loves a rebel, as long as his causes are in the past. So now all US society embraces Ali, even if they despised him at the time. Henry Kissinger would probably say, "I've always been a fan, and though it may seem as if we disagreed over Vietnam, his stance of opposing the war there, and my one of dropping napalm all over it are actually much the same when you look more closely".

Where Ali's boxing and political methods came together was in identifying his opponents as being the favourites of the Establishment. Sometimes this was justified, such as when Ernie Terrell insisted on calling him Cassius Clay, so as Ali knocked him out, he yelled at him, "Stand up White America!"

But he adopted similar tactics when it was dishonest. So he called Joe Frazier "a dumb gorilla", and an "Uncle Tom", with no evidence he was either, which could be interpreted as on the unpleasant side.

Unlike the figures in authority who, years after vilifying Ali, claimed to revere him, Frazier never forgave Ali, which is immensely to his credit, and he also said being called an Uncle Tom hurt him more than Ali's punches.

But when you compare their electrifying verbal spats with the contrived blandness of the modern sportsman being interviewed, you can't help imagine that even if they did support similar causes to those of Ali, you'd never know, as their speech would go, "Well obviously we're hoping to get a good international decision but we're taking it one demonstration at a time and there's a long way to go and obviously I don't want to say too much until after the UN resolution".

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