Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Joe Frazier (1944-2011)

I remember the "Fight of the Century" vividly not because it was the most anticipated bout in boxing history until then but because I (along with another 70 million people) was in existential danger. The date was March 9, 1971 (March 8 in New York). The Pakistani army had put a stranglehold on East Pakistan, later to become Bangladesh. There were aerial bombardments day and night and the Pakistani army would soon launch a genocide against unarmed Bangladeshis. I had taken shelter in a friend's house on that day but in spite of the danger around me, I was listening intently to the BBC's running commentary on an epic battle taking place in distant New York.

My hero, Muhammad Ali, was fighting the pretender to the throne, a ferocious fighter named Joe Frazier. I had no doubt that Ali would win. How could this fearless pugilist, who had galvanized the world's downtrodden and the oppressed and who spoke truth to power so boldly, lose?

But the unthinkable happened. Ali lost. With his relentless attack, Frazier had apparently worn Ali down. I carried the hurt with me for several days until the genocide by the Pakistani army made everything else insignificant.

Bangaldesh had become an independent nation in December of 1971. In August of 1974, I found myself in Philadelphia as a graduate student at Temple University. By then, I had seen the "fight of the century" dozens of times on TV. One day, on a lark, I called up Frazier's gym in North Philly. Frazier was preparing for a fight (I think it was with Joe Bugner) and the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that his sparring sessions were open to the public. I wanted to see him in action. An assistant answered and gave me the time of the session.

I took the subway and suddenly there was the man himself, throwing punches at his sparring partners. In person, he looked rather small but there was no mistaking his intent, which was to tear off his opponent's head. The ring looked too small to contain his ferocity.

After the sessions, Frazier was all smiles and mingled with the onlookers. I remember the scene after all these years.

Ali and Frazier fought two more times, including the classic "Thrilla in Manila", and Ali avenged himself by winning both times.

Boxing fans knew that if Frazier ran into a bigger version of himself, he would be defeated. That's what happened with George Foreman who punished him mercilessly in their two bouts, although Frazier gave a better account of himself in the second bout than in the first.

Frazier nursed the psychological hurt that Ali inflicted on him and apparently took the hurt to his grave. That's unfortunate. On learning of his nemesis's death, Ali said, “The world has lost a great champion. I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration.”

It would have been wonderful if Ali and Frazier had reconciled in public. Both brought out the best boxing skills in each other and both helped each other reach the summit of pugilistic excellence. But a correction is in order in the wake of all the glorification of Frazier now that he has moved on. Contrary to what some sports writers are saying or have said, Ali was the better boxer but even more importantly, the better human being. If we are defined by the challenges we take on in life, there just is no comparison. That in no way diminishes the fundamental goodness of Frazier.

Rest in peace, Joe.

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