Say It Ain't So, Says Joe
PERHAPS IT IS WRONG to pity a man who made as much money in as short a time as Joe Frazier did in losing his heavyweight title in Kingston, Jamaica last week. But, it's hard not to. You see, Joe Frazier did not so much lose his title as be rudely awakened to the fact that he had never had it.
Since 1968, when the New York State Boxing Commission awarded him its version of the heavyweight title after he defeated Buster Mathis. Frazier had won three facsimilies of the heavyweight title without earning the professional championship of the world. Surely, neither his New York State title nor the World Boxing Association championship belt he took from Jimmy Ellis five years later made Joe Frazier the heavyweight champion in the eyes of the world.
The world champion was Muhammad Ali. Ali's majordomo. Drew Bundini, who captured the ring essence of Ali in his famous exhortation to him to "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," had an equally elegant explanation of why Ali, stripped of his title for refusing to be drafted, retained the status of world champion. "The world," Drew Bundini said, "is a black shirt with a few white buttons."
Even when he was still known as Cassius Clay the world beyond the buttons had taken a fashion to the fast-handed fighter who stunned Sonny Liston with contemptuous authority. But, when after falling under the spell of Malcolm X, the religion of Islam, and the disciplined dignity of Elijah Muhammad's followers. Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali and Muhammad Ali attracted the wrath of white American bureaucratic brontosaurs like the WBA, the Selective Service, and the American Legion, the world beyond the buttons developed a clinging passion to the man who had become their champion. In Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Arab world, even in Europe, England and the American center cities, crowds of people of all colors followed him in the streets, screaming. "Ali! Ali!" At a time when America was losing the edge of its international prestige with each succeeding day of escalating war in Vietnam and every new sign of domestic injustice, a man, an American to most of the world, had achieved an international standing superior to ancestral royalty and holders of high office.
All the while, in America, sportswriters and boxing buffs--mainly whites, but some blacks, too--were doing the Saint Vitus Dance over what they called the irreparable damage Ali was doing to the fight game and its top honor. Like unctuous clergy defrocking a black sheep priest, they mumbled about heresy and the sovereignty of the faith as if pugilism were the true church of Christ in Everlast and Fat City the terminus of the Celestial Railroad. So, they shore Ali of his title, and with silent supplications for the second coming of the Great White Hope, called for a new idol.
AFTER A SERIES of wholly unmemorable fights, the keepers of the boxer's temple proclaimed Joe Frazier the new emperor of Fat City, but the emperor had no clothes.
Joe Frazier used to work as a meatcutter in Philadelphia. From the way he boxes you can tell he was a good one. In the ring, Frazier attacks things. He plants his feet, leads with his head and explodes his fists at objects. His punch is a left hook and he will take punches in order to unleash it. Imagine a gas-driven, left-handed meatcleaver and you will get a sense of what dropped Muhammad Ali in the 15th round of his fight with Frazier twenty months ago.
That fight, so-called "The Fight of the Century," was supposed to settle the issue once and for all. Joe Frazier saw it as a chance to prove in the ring that the title was his. For three years, he had held the heavyweight crown without being able to echo John L. Sullivan's famous champion's boast: "My name is John L. Sullivan and I can beat any bastard alive!"
But, even after he beat Ali, Joe Frazier had not won the world championship he wanted. His victory in the ring had been decisive. He had boxed Ali to a stand-off and then out-punched him. Yet, it was precisely at that moment when Ali hit the canvas that the emptiness of Frazier's triumph became apparent: the crowd was silent, totally void of enthusiasm. When the decision was announced and Frazier stood arm-raised at center ring, he smiled alone, with difficulty and deep fatigue, in the roped summit of the crowd's ambivalence. From there, he was taken to a hospital.
Ali had punched him up badly, misshaping his face and distorting his vision. But there was something else, that silence, the absence of a crowd's cheers still ringing in his ears, that afflicted Frazier even more. As it has been at each of Ali's fights after his return to the American ring to fight Jerry Quarry in Atlanta, the crowd at the Fight of the Century was largely black. It was in their silent ambivalence towards him that Frazier, lying with his face in cotton gauze in a hospital after the fight, must have first found the tracks of a stalking demon. It must have then crossed his mind and reared the haunting possibility that no matter what else he did, Joe Frazier would never be anything more than a white hope in black-face on the black shirt of the world.
That Demon, as it happens, took the form of George Foreman last week in Kingston. Until this fight, Foreman was best known as the boxer who waved a miniature U.F. Flag after he won the heavyweight gold medal at the Olympics in Mexico City, Coming soon after the black gloved salute given by John Carlos and Tommy Smith during the playing of the national anthem in an earlier awards ceremony, Foreman's gesture received much praise from those troubled by the "black power" movement in sports. They interpreted Foreman's flag as a sterling sign of patriotism and a rebuke to the Carlos-Smith contingent.
HOWEVER, FOREMAN himself has another explanation. He says that he always carries three talismen in the pocket of his warm-up coat when he goes into the ring, including the miniature flag and a rabbit's foot. After he won the gold medal, he waved the flag "because I wanted people to know where I'm from," not knowing at the time that his skin was all the identifying color he needed.
Foreman earned his shot at the title by winning 37 consecutive professional fights, the last 21 straight by knock-outs. Burn in Houston, he was a high school drop-out who began fighting in organized competition after he joined the job Corps, which is how he came to the attention of Sargent Sargent Shriver, now one of his principal backers. In the ring against Frazier and during the last weeks of his preparation for the fight. Foreman won the allegiance of flocks of Jamaicans, who sensed in him something of the same quality that had drawn them to Muhammad Ali. When the fight was over, the Jamaicans carried Foreman out of the ring, a dozen of them holding him parallel to the sky above their shoulders. The arena was in the open air of the starry Jamaican night.
What was it about Foreman that captured the crowed as Ali does but Frazier never could? Don't ask Joe Frazier. Six times he got up from the ice-blue canvas after seeing it without seeing it at all and went back after Foreman to look for it. But, he never saw it. Two of the last three times, it hit him so hard that he was lifted several inches into the air. The final time, it just sort of crumbled him. But, he got up, like a twisted yo-yo, still looking, not quite understanding the sound of the cheering crowd.