Note: While this isn’t really the typical fare for this space, I have been working on some elements I put into practice here with my students. Plus, I just felt a compulsion to write this, and I didn’t know where else to try and publish it. So, here’s hoping anyone that reads it enjoys it. Cheers. <Also appears in SMITH Magazine>
“Here, take this,” he said, slipping a five dollar bill into my small hand. I hesitated, not sure if it was alright.
It was 1977, when five dollars went a lot further and it seemed like an awful lot of money to the five year-old me. The man handing me the fin was my father’s friend, Bishop, on account of his name being John Bishop. He had one of the most distinctive voices I have heard in my life, his laugh as distinctly hearty and husky.
“No, it’s alright. Take it. Get those guys some street clothes,” said the tall, black Bishop, bent down on one knee, reassuring me, so that I might take the money.
While I did end up taking it (my parents even approved), my amazement as to why he gave me money would last far longer than my trepidation. At five, I couldn’t fully understand his generosity. After all, I hadn’t really done anything to deserve it; and although Bishop wasn’t exactly a stranger, no one other than a relative had ever really offered me money. It wasn’t until I was much older that I could appreciate his act of kindness.
The guys to whom he referred, were Muhammad Ali and an unnamed opponent, two ten-inch action figures I played with constantly as a kid. Legend has it that the opponent was supposed to resemble Ken Norton, but for me, he was always Joe Frazier. When I heard Joe Frazier died, my moment with Bishop played over and over in my head.
See, the toys were part of the Mego Muhammad Ali Boxing Ring set, of course. Made in the year following Super Fight III, there would be no Joe Frazier play sets. Ali had yet again captured the popular consciousness and was heavyweight champion of the world. I still remember seeing Ali fight at the end of his career, when boxing meant something and every title bout was an event that everyone couldn’t help but discuss and wager.
I was quite young when I fell for the sport of boxing, and Muhammad Ali, The Greatest, might have been my first real sports hero. If ever there was an athlete that seemed larger than life, it was Ali. He continues to be the screen upon which we collectively project one of our culture’s most complicated and revealing narratives. Ironically, Joe Frazier’s death resurrects the nostalgia and complexity of his greatest and hated rival. It is the kind of dark cruelty and paradox that requires maturity to understand.
I still find Ali an extraordinarily compelling and fascinating figure. Yet, as I grew older and deeper into adulthood, I would come to appreciate Joe Frazier more and more, in an odd way justifying my childish insistence that the unnamed toy boxer of my play set was Smokin’ Joe.
Frazier too reflected a collage of symbolism for our culture, with no thanks to Ali’s antics during the Super Fight era, but the charged rhetoric that would cast Frazier as a villain to Ali’s hero would fade for the most part. But history is never written by the loser, so Frazier would fade from the popular consciousness, pushed to the fringe by the omnivorous Ali myth machine.
Joe Frazier was by all accounts a kind, humble, and decent human being. He was a truly great fighter, in his own right; but he was just that, a fighter, not a force of nature icon. In a cruel twist of fate, Frazier is inexorably linked with a man he loathed, a man who vilified him, a man to whom he would ultimately lose on that October night in the Philippines – the greatest prizefight the world has ever seen.
Perhaps it was the fact that Frazier lived and trained in Philadelphia, the city of my birth, that started my re-examination of him. More likely, it was gaining a greater appreciation of substance over flash, recognition that things are not always as they appear. The truth is usually more complicated.
There was not much flash to Joe Frazier in the ring, with the possible exception of the red streak of his vicious left hook. He was simply relentless, a rare brawler who could take as much punishment as he could deliver. He just kept coming, never quitting. He was one of boxing’s most honest fighters, proving best of all in the first of the Ali trilogy. For a short time, he was a people’s champion.
There was nobility in Frazier’s unceasing reliability. He forced someone to stop him. In The Thrilla in Manila, it was his trainer that stopped him, stopped him from Ali, stopped him from himself, and probably even stopped him from dying that night. Frazier’s will never waned.
The truth is that Ali and Frazier, to me, represent something more akin to two great loves, Frazier the reliable, constant, the one that makes sense to marry, and Ali, the bewitching charmer, the magnetic one that beckons a stormy affair. After the flush is gone, I want honesty and substance to win, but, sadly, it rarely does.
I am still captivated by Ali, in many ways, but now it too is more complicated. What’s more, I feel some pangs of remorse that the two are so inexorably paired. On some level, they can never be separated, despite death. In my mind, Joe Frazier is the more tragic figure of the two. He was the lunch pail loser, the simple fighter; perhaps the one we all should have been hoping would prevail.
Hearing the news of Joe Frazier’s death struck me more than I ever would have expected. I never knew him personally, and the passing of famous people generally doesn’t affect me much. Nevertheless, this one sent me revisiting my long-lost love of boxing, my fascination with those three fights that had all the pageantry and tragedy of classical theatre, and a nostalgic trip through childhood memories.
So in my mind, that unnamed boxer from my play set, clad only in blue boxing silks and a robe, could only ever be Frazier. I don’t remember if I got any street clothes for him. However, upon hearing the news of Frazier’s untimely death, I couldn’t help being transported in time, to my moment with Bishop and my Mego Muhammad Ali Boxing Ring set.
Ultimately, Bishop was shocked by a little white boy unabashedly playing with action figures of two black men in the suburbs. He didn’t really know what else to do. He was at a bit of a loss, but nonetheless moved. Upon hearing that Smokin’ Joe Frazier died…so was I.