Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On the Death of Joe Frazier

Smokin' Joe Frazier
Joe Frazier, the Heavyweight Boxing Champ, is one of many black men who were champion boxers, so his recent death prompts a review of all those greats - and some thoughts about the world we were raised in.  As lily white Norwegian Lutherans.  And we'll get to that in the next posting.

But first, some thoughts about some of the greats we have known in our lifetime.  Boxing was, to me, a spectator sport.  I couldn't see any reason to take the beating that some of them faced, like Benny "Kid" Paret, who was killed in the ring by Emile Griffith in March of 1962.  The cover of Sports Illustrated the following week showed Paret being beaten to his death; in First Hour Study Hall, Maynard Midtgaard pointed at the photo and said, "These guys are the best-conditioned athletes in the world."  True - but it didn't keep Paret alive.

On the other hand, boxing was a way out, of sorts, for a number of blacks dating perhaps first to Jack Johnson, who became the first African-American Heavyweight Champ in the early 1900's.  Over time, more and more blacks got into the ring, although my earliest recollection was of a fellow named Bobo Olson, a white guy who was at least moderately successful.  By the mid 50's Floyd Patterson took the title, leading to bouts with the Swede Ingemar Johansson, and I was hooked as a boxing fan.  Old 'tunder and lightning was a one-punch marvel but if it landed, he would win.  I listened to 2 or 3 of their fights over the static-filled AM radio stations, losing the call from time to time as the signal faded away.

Sonny Liston - "The Bear"
And then the sport turned brutal as Sonny Liston, "The Bear" became the Champ by defeating Floyd Patterson, holding the title until he met Cassius Clay, later to become Muhammad Ali, The Greatest.  Leading up to the defense of his title against Clay, one magazine photo had Liston resting on his forearms, his chin propped up by his fists, sporting the glare that was his trademark.  He looked unbeatable, but wasn't.  Clay was magnificent.

Over time, Clay was castigated for his conversion to the Nation of Islam and refusal to serve when called.  His decision to accept a prison sentence might have been the greatest statement of principle by anyone in our younger days, and gained fans for a lifetime.  His boxing skills were unbelievable, his mouth even more unbelievable, and he led the way for foes like Frazier, Ken  Norton, George Foreman, Mike Tyson, and even Leon Spinks, a real surprise winner in 1978, and the beginning of the end of the superiority of Ali in the ring.

Frazier vs Ali, date unknown
Ali and Frazier fought "The Thrilla in Manilla" in 1975, their final bout, and the boxing world never seemed the same again as these icons gave it their all.  Although it was not in this fight that we heard the memorable call, "DOWN goes Fray-zhuh!  DOWN goes Fray-zhuh!" (that was Frazier vs Foreman), Howard Cosell himself became an integral part of the boxing story, with his numerous interviews of Ali, sparring conversations that became promotional for all parties including Ali, Cosell, and the sport of boxing.

At the welterweight level we later saw Sugar Ray Robinson, Thomas "Hit Man" Hearns, Roberto Duran, and Marvelous Marvin Hagler battling each other in the 80's, and to my mind that was the beginning of the end of boxing as a sport of renown.  By 1993 when Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield were fighting, the biggest event of the night was the ultralight plane that crashed into the ring.  And that was the last boxing match I believe I watched on the tube.

So many of the boxers, black for sure and probably the white ones, too, came from poor backgrounds.  Sonny Liston was reputedly one of 25 children fathered by one man.  Frazier was one of twelve.  The family background was typically that of sharecropper, and for many who indeed made it to the Bigtime and a share of boxing wealth, the stories eventually came back of the wealth being frittered away through unscrupulous handlers, fast living, or ignorance, and the boxers ignominiously becoming Vegas "greeters" to support themselves.  But for many black men, there was little other choice.  More on that in Part Deux.

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