Our local newspaper ran a maudlin article today on the death of champion prizefighter Joe Frazier: Muhammad Ali says he'll remember Joe Frazier with respect. In what passes nowadays for mainstream journalism, Associated Press Sports Writer Mike Fitzpatrick reported: “After his old rival died Monday night, Ali had nothing but kind words for Smokin’ Joe. ‘The world has lost a great champion. I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration,’ Ali said in a short statement. ‘My sympathy goes out to his family and loved ones.’”
The article is just another in a seemingly unending stream of transparently mendacious tripe about Louisville’s most famous son, Cassius Clay (a/k/a Cassius X, Muhammad X, Muhammad Ali), in which we are supposed to pretend to believe that this brain-damaged semi-literate—who has obviously been unable to communicate in any manner for more than a decade—is somehow telepathically able to transmit his thoughts on a variety of subjects. (Remember that phony “Letter to the people of Norway,” last August?)
As we have previously suggested, in a less-enlightened era, we would have referred to Clay’s Parkinsonism as Dementia pugilistica (traumatic boxer’s encephalopathy), or being just plain “punch-drunk.” Now he is little more than a prop; a blank screen moved around from place to place by rich white people, who project their views and beliefs upon his once-attractive surface. He’s said to be a big supporter of fairness, brotherhood, economic justice, peace, environmentalism, and every other liberal dogma from regular flossing to periodic tire rotation. In reality, Clay is clueless; his mind having tragically left his body years ago.
Maybe reporter Fitzpatrick and his ilk expect us to forget the fact that Muhammad Ali was a braggart, a womanizer, a narcissist, and a racist capable of such vile comments as: "No intelligent black man or black woman in his or her right black mind wants white boys and white girls coming to their homes to marry their black sons and daughters." We here in Louisville—who know him well—can never forget that Ali is an unapologetic sexist and unabashed racist, who called for the lynching of interracial couples and an American apartheid as late as 1975. He routinely denigrated black heroes who did not share his point of view, including Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, and especially Joe Frazier. The racist venom he spewed against Frazier would make a Klansman blanch.
Perhaps the most perceptive analysis of the Ali/Frazier dynamic was a piece by Richard Hoffer, in the current Sports Illustrated, reminding readers of Frazier's initial respect for Ali. Frazier had befriended Ali, and during Ali’s suspension for draft-dodging, petitioned President Nixon to reinstate the former champ. But instead of displaying any sense of gratitude, “Ali went off the promotional rails and began marketing the bout … as a cultural and political referendum. Ali would be the revolutionary, the man of the times; Frazier would be the Uncle Tom, a sociological and perhaps athletic throwback.” Hoffer details the hurt and embarrassment Frazier suffered.
It was bad, bad. Frazier won the first fight and spent three weeks in the hospital. Ali won the last and spent most of the rest of his life locked behind the mask of Parkinson's, shut up for good. Collateral damage is an insufficient descriptor. Forever after, those run-ins became a catchphrase for an exaggerated style of competition, for when athletic urgency just went a little too far, got out of hand, produced something both awful and wonderful, created injury disproportionate to any possible rewards. We hear it to this day: It was good, but it was no Ali-Frazier.
Ten years ago, Ali told The New York Times he was sorry for what he said about Frazier before their first fight. At first, Frazier accepted the apology, but later, in TV Guide said, "He didn't apologize to me -- he apologized to the paper I'm still waiting for him to say it to me." Ali’s gentlemanly response: "If you see Frazier, you tell him he's still a gorilla."
It is certainly appropriate to print encomia and respectful reference to such a sports legend as the late Joe Frazier. But to suggest in passing that Muhammad Ali is anything other than a scoundrel and a cad is revisionist history beyond the pale.
Those of us old enough to remember enjoying listening to ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his little wooden pal Charlie McCarthy on radio (ask your grandfather) may recall that Bergen’s act failed to translate over into television. His lips moved when Charlie talked. And we kids were faced with the stark and sad realization that Charlie was just a dummy.
Muhammad Ali on Joe Frazier
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