Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Smokin' Joe felled by the power of liberal pretension

March 1971: In a title fight at Madison Square Gardens, New York, Muhammad Ali goes down in the 15th round to a left hook from world heavyweight champion Joe Frazier who kept the title with an unanimous points win. Cameramen are crowded round the ring. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

The most popular tourist attraction in Philadelphia is the statue of Rocky Balboa adjacent to the steps leading up to the city's Arts Museum.

It was Rocky's daily lung-bursting, arm-pumping sprints up the 72-step escarpment at dawn which sculpted his body to muscular perfection for the death-or-glory encounter with Apollo Creed.

But Philadelphia never put Joe Frazier - an actual as opposed to a fictional heavyweight champion - on a pedestal. None of the ritual tributes paid upon his death on Monday can make up for the disrespect heaped upon him in life.

Frazier was 12 when his family moved to Philadelphia, the second-youngest of 11 children of sharecropper parents from South Carolina. His father had run a moonshine still and farmed marijuana to make ends meet. Joe left school and went to work a year after arriving in the city.

He spent his last years back in the old Philly neighbourhood, living somewhat obscurely in a one-bedroom apartment above a gym where he helped train young fighters.

He was by no means derelict and showed no need of pity. But he had lost the money he'd made as a fighter to shyster lawyers and property developers and could fairly have been described as down on his luck.

Frazier had never recovered from his victory over Ali in the first of their three fights, at Madison Square Garden in 1971. This was the moment when legend had decreed that Ali reclaim the title he'd been robbed of by the draft board, the courts and the war-mongering media.

All the cool dudes of America, the brothers off the block and the lovers of stories written in the stars wanted Ali to win. Smokin' Joe rained on their parade and they never forgave him.

Ali had been stripped of his title in 1967 for refusing to fight in Vietnam. At that point, the war against the Vietnamese was still relatively popular. Ali was excoriated as a traitor, but by 1971 the brutal truth was becoming apparent. Anti-war sentiment was seeping towards the mainstream.

The second fight, again at the Garden, came in January 1974. The Vietnam peace deal had been concluded in Paris the previous year. Nixon was about to 'fess up to Watergate. It wasn't just the dudes and the dreamers who now doubted the wisdom of the war.

Ali was handed a decision which wasn't so much dubious as perverse. But only a handful of writers - most notably Red Smith of the New York Times - thought to make any sort of protest.

The third fight, the Thrilla in Manila, came in October 1975, five months after the final US withdrawal. By this time, it was hard to find anyone to admit to having ever supported the war.

As the helicopters had clattered up and away from the roof of the Saigon embassy, the cowards and the whores had raised a finger to check what way the new wind was blowing. Many who had once wanted Ali flogged to within an inch now craved any opportunity to be seen by his side. Or at least on his side.

A great ersatz act of expiation had been called for. Ali, black man as golden boy, served the purpose perfectly. Liberal intellectuals fluttered in approval as he taunted Frazier as an ugly gorilla.

It was in the same year, 1975, that Rocky was filmed in Philadelphia. Shooting had already begun when Sylvester Stallone learned that the teenage Frazier, while working in a local slaughterhouse, had punched sides of beef in a refrigerated room in preparation for amateur fights. He incorporated the incident to create the most memorable scene in the movie.

Even that was taken, without thanks or acknowledgement, from Joe Frazier.

Since Monday, Ali and Frazier have been spoken of as if they were inseparable. Ali-Frazier, Frazier-Ali. Someone said on Radio Four that, "Deep down, the two of them had the height of respect for one another." No they didn't.

Ali insulted Frazier any time his name came up and Joe regularly made the mistake of slapping back. "He's not good at that sort of exchange," observed Dan Fiske. "You insist on continuing on a 30-year vicious feud with the most-loved icon in America, you're not going to make friends or money."

Quite so. Everyone can feel at ease with themselves in the company of poetical Ali. But Smokin' Joe spoke only in hard-knuckled prose.

As a fighter, he was the real deal. His grandeur has never been acknowledged because he didn't fit the political bill.

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