Editor’s note: This column originally ran on Aug. 19, 2000, when HBO aired a sports documentary about the first fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. The Star-Telegram is republishing the column as a tribute to Ali, who died Friday night at age 74.
If you lived through the late ’60s and early ’70s, as so many of us did, then I must warn you: HBO’s brilliant new sports documentary, Ali-Frazier I: One Country ... Divisible, may smack you in the solar plexus with the devastating power of Smokin’ Joe’s famed left hook.
It packs one powerful punch.
In today’s over-hyped, over-marketed, over-sold sports world, every fight is the next Fight of the Century. None of them remotely compare to Ali-Frazier I on March 8, 1971.
Set against the backdrop of the turbulent times and at the height of the Vietnam War, the fight became a symbol of the great chasm that threatened to split our country down the middle. It featured two undefeated fighters, one the reigning heavyweight champion of the world, the other the champion who had been deposed and in the process lost 31/2 years in his prime because he refused to be inducted into the military for religious reasons.
This fight, five years in the making, clearly positioned Ali as the symbol of the civil rights struggle and anti-Vietnam movement.
HBO executive Ross Greenburg, talking about 1971 bout
Yet, they stood for so much more than just two ring warriors with spotless records. We saddled them with all our own conflicting emotions, burdened them with responsibilities they neither sought, nor deserved.
“This fight, five years in the making, clearly positioned Ali as the symbol of the civil rights struggle and anti-Vietnam movement, while Frazier was unfairly viewed as the symbol of the pro-war, conservative segment of American society,” Ross Greenburg, senior vice president and executive producer of HBO Sports, said in a promotion for the documentary.
What hurts, 30 years later, is to realize that I was on the wrong side.
‘I despised Muhammad Ali’
It’s probably not politically correct to admit even now, but at the time, I despised Muhammad Ali. So did most of white, conservative America. I didn’t hate him — and hate is too strong a word, really — because he was black, but because, I think, somewhere inside, he made me feel ashamed.
There were so many conflicting emotions going on in those days. I had grown up believing in the might and power and righteousness of my country. We were the good guys. We were John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. We helped weaker people overcome oppression. We didn’t kill them in their hutches. We didn’t napalm their villages. Did we?
So when Ali refused to be inducted and to serve in Vietnam, I hid behind my own student deferment and ridiculed him as so many others did. How could he claim to be a pacifist, we reasoned, and still want to fight in the ring for money? It was so easy then to forget the not-so-subtle difference between the sport of boxing and killing people in the jungle.
While Ali, who had embraced the Nation of Islam and dropped the name Cassius Clay, under which he’d won an Olympic gold medal for this country, was fighting his conviction as a draft dodger all the way to the Supreme Court, another gold medalist (Tokyo, 1964) was emerging as the new heavyweight champion.
The irony, when the court overturned Ali’s conviction and Ali-Frazier I was finally set, was that Joe Frazier, the son of a South Carolina sharecropper, a man, as he himself would point out, “blacker than Ali, “ became white America’s champion.
He would finally, we believed, shut Ali up once and for all.
How wrong we were. And in so many ways. It was a terrible disease that ultimately closed Ali’s mouth, just as we were beginning to realize how much he had to say.
‘Lord, help me kill this guy’
There was a subplot to that first Ali-Frazier meeting, too. Frazier had personally gone out of his way to help Ali get his boxing license back. He’d stuffed several thousand dollars into Ali’s pocket in the back of a limousine when Ali was broke, only to watch in stunned disbelief when Ali jumped out of the limo in front of a New York hotel and began screaming, “I want Joe Frashuh! I want Joe Frashuh!”
So when Ali refused to be inducted and to serve in Vietnam, I hid behind my own student deferment and ridiculed him as so many others did. How could he claim to be a pacifist, we reasoned, and still want to fight in the ring for money?
Frazier couldn’t understand it when Ali painted him as the “Uncle Tom” white man’s champion, or when he made fun of his slow, Southern speech pattern, or called him “dumb.” Perhaps Ali, always the showman, was simply marketing the fight. But both fighters were already guaranteed $2.5 million each, and the fight at Madison Square Garden had sold out in two hours. Nobody needed to sell tickets.
“I swallowed a lot of razor blades,”” a gray-haired, husky-voiced Frazier says in the film, “and sometimes they cut ... inside.”
The unfairness of that era has followed Frazier most of his life, even leading him to cruelly make fun of the halting, stumbling, mute Ali, stricken with Parkinson’s syndrome, on a radio show after Ali lit the torch on opening night of the Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Before the fight, Frazier’s son Marvis saw his father praying in the dressing room and asked , “Pop, what did you pray for?”
Answered Frazier, “I prayed, ‘Lord, help me kill this guy, ‘cause he’s not righteous.”’
Ali’s loss was stunning
The fight itself was a classic, ebbing and flowing back and forth as Frank Sinatra snapped photos for Life magazine and Burt Lancaster sat in on the broadcast team. First it was Ali, then Frazier, then Ali, then Frazier, then Ali again.
It was Frazier’s thunderous left hook that finally made the difference. He staggered Ali with a tremendous shot in the 11th round, turning him jelly-legged and seemingly out on his feet. But Frazier didn’t finish him, and Ali rallied yet again.
Philadelphia Daily News columnist Stan Hochman remembers thinking, “This is the best fight I’ve ever seen, perhaps the best fight I’ll ever see. I’d better cherish this.”
By the 15th and final round, Frazier led on every judge’s card, but that wasn’t good enough. He had to put Ali down. He did, landing yet another devastating left hook to Ali’s jaw, sending him crashing to the canvas.
Becoming ‘The Greatest’
Ali’s loss stunned those who were struggling for advancements in civil rights, for peace in Vietnam and for an end to the violence on the streets of our country.
“When he lost, it was like, ‘It can’t be. I can’t be on the wrong side of all these things,’” Bryant Gumbel tells the HBO cameras.
Some of us were, though. Some of us were.
The unanimous decision defined his career, but it didn’t win the war for Joe Frazier either, any more than Ali’s stunning loss won it for those of us who rooted against him. Ali would take the rematch at the Garden and “The Thrillah in Manila” as well.
It would be Ali who would indeed, become “The Greatest,” and it was Frazier who would eventually be remembered as just another steppingstone along his path.
If nothing else, perhaps the documentary will help heal old wounds. For Frazier, who said after its New York premiere that he’s ready to forgive and forget; and for the country, which somehow righted itself and survived that tumultuous. confusing time.
Who knows, maybe even for those of us who picked the wrong side.
Three decades later, we can only hope so.
Jim Reeves is a former sports columnist for the Star-Telegram.