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"Sometimes Words Hit Harder," by Gabriel I. Green

As a kid, one of my favorite movies was the 1989 boxing documentary Champions Forever. According to my parents, by the time I was about three or four I could quote the entire movie word for word. I decided to watch the doc over this past weekend. The film is mostly 80 minutes of hero worship for Muhammad Ali, but that’s not all that it is. The documentary does include some general background on the careers of a handful of other former heavyweight champions: Larry Holmes, Ken Norton, George Foreman, and Joe Frazier. But it’s not a surprise that these four fighters were in the documentary because, after all, they are noteworthy foils in Ali’s towering mythos.

There’s a point in the film at which the host, baseball legend Reggie Jackson, is moderating an interview with the former champions. Jackson asks each of the men what he thought about Ali’s refusal to accept his induction into the United States Army during the Vietnam war. Foreman, Norton, and Holmes all heaped tons of praise on Ali for standing up for his beliefs, giving up his hard-earned title for a matter of principle. Foreman went as far as to proclaim that Ali was “probably one of the greatest men of all time.” Joe Frazier, on the other hand, was having none of it. “I believe {if Ali had accepted induction} he wouldn’t have had to shoot nobody. I think he could have represented the Blacks as one of the greatest champions that ever lived, just by going over there and waving at the people.” Rewatching that clip as an adult, I interpreted that exchange differently than I did as a kid. I took it as a simple expression of opinion back then. Now it seems almost like Frazier was telling Ali, “They can all kiss yo ass if they want to. I still ain’t forgot all that stuff you said back in ‘71.” Old Smokin’ Joe still had plenty of smoke left to give the champ.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, The Fight of the Century. When Ali and Frazier met on Monday, March 8, 1971, it was more than just two great boxers fighting each other. The men served as unofficial proxies for several battling ideas: Black Muslim vs. Christianity, leftist anti-establishment vs. conservative establishment, anti-Vietnam War vs. pro-war sentiments---all while representing ideas of intra-racial colorism and racial loyalty. By the time both men met in the center of the ring in Madison Square Garden, Ali had arguably already delivered the heaviest blows. Speaking behind the (painfully thin) veil of fight promotion, Ali bombarded Frazier mercilessly. In Ali’s words, Frazier was a gorilla who was too ugly to be the world champ; Frazier was an Uncle Tom who wasn’t really about the business of Black liberation; Frazier was the white man’s champion; Frazier was a proxy for Nixon, the entire pro-war establishment, and every racist bigot that wished to keep Ali out of the ring. Ali’s verbal assault had real-life effects. Frazier’s kids were bullied at school. His family reportedly received death threats. Furthermore, Ali had effectively alienated Frazier from many Black folks in America.

To be clear, the verbal attacks didn’t come from just Ali. Frazier played along, insistently calling Ali by his former name (Cassius Clay) and engaging in his own brand of colorism by apparently calling Ali “half-breed” and “light, bright, and damn-near-white.” However, Smokin’ Joe’s specialty was his vicious left hook (as Ali would come to learn throughout their brutal 15-round battle). When it came to verbal acumen, Frazier was sadly no match for a rhetor of Ali’s prowess.

The sad irony of it all was that most of Ali’s verbal assaults were neither true nor even necessary to promote the fight. Both fighters were contracted to receive $2.5 million dollars for the fight---a record-smashing purse at the time---regardless of who showed up to watch the fight. Frazier was not “the white man’s champion.” Frazier won his titles in the ring after stopping Jimmy Ellis via a 5th round TKO. (Fun fact, the title that Ellis held was awarded to him after a WBA elimination tournament for Ali’s vacated belt, a tournament that Frazier refused to participate in as a protest in support of Ali.) And Frazier was not a proxy for Nixon or those who worked to keep Ali from boxing. Quite the opposite: Frazier petitioned Nixon and other boxing officials to have Ali’s boxing license reinstated. Furthermore, he put some of his own money in Ali’s pocket in some lean moments of Ali’s exile. Needless to say, by the night of their first fight, Frazier was likely enraged and justifiably so. No matter how great Muhammad Ali was before the fight (or what greatness he would realize after the fight), there was no way in hell that Frazier was walking out of that ring without the win.

Later in the documentary, Frazier reiterates how much he didn’t care for Ali’s antics. “I know he was out to get me. . .out to hurt me. More than anything else, the words were more hurting, to me, than the punches.” Given what we know of the toll that the fight took on Joe Frazier’s health and career---a three-week hospital stay and rapidly diminishing returns on his former greatness---that’s saying a lot.


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