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


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".

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam