|Muhammad Ali won one of his most important victories the other day. It was a long time coming, almost 30 years, and it was over one of his most difficult opponents, himself -- or perhaps more accurately, his lesser self. He finally admitted he had transgressed by going far beyond any acceptable line when he had belittled and taunted Joe Frazier during the hype for their three historic fights.
Back then, he had called Frazier an Uncle Tom, said he was much too ugly to be a champion and called him, on the occasion of their third fight, a gorilla. Frazier, unable to fight back verbally, for words were never among his weapons, remained hurt and bitter long after the fights were over.
When Ali finally apologized, he accepted the fact that he had wounded another, very worthy man. "Joe's right (to be bitter). I said a lot of things in the heat of the moment that I shouldn't have said. Called him names I shouldn't have called him. I apologize for that. I'm sorry. It was all meant to promote the fight."
Ali's apology was both magnanimous, and long overdue. What he had said at the time was cruel and unacceptable. He had taken Frazier, the least political of men, and cast him in the most unlikely of roles, that of the great white hope, a role that Frazier in no way deserved.
Included in the apology was a covert admission on Ali's part that he owes no small amount of his own remarkable claim to greatness to Joe Frazier, innately far less physically talented an athlete, but every bit as indomitable of spirit. The simplest of all the many truths of Ali's magnificent career is that without the three Frazier fights, Ali is not Ali. For their fights represent one of those great moments in sports when two superb, lion-hearted athletes -- with vastly differing skills -- arrive at the same place at almost the exact same time.
Because of Frazier, we know how great Ali was, how strong, how resilient and how resolute, and how courageously he could take a punch -- for early in his career it was said of him that that was a particular weakness and vulnerability. When he was on the way up, and when he first won his crown, we always knew how great Ali said he was; when it was all over, the fights with Frazier done, we knew that the reality was greater than the hype, the walk better than the talk.
The Liston fights, after all, are not defining -- the Liston that Ali beat, however threatening, was old, out of shape and the shadow of the mob still hangs heavily over the second fight. The fight with George Foreman in Zaire is the equivalent of one Frazier fight, but it is a relatively small part of what would eventually become a much larger body of work.
|Muhammad Ali hit Joe Frazier just as hard outside the ring as he did in it.
Let me be absolutely clear in what I am saying, because Ali is such a complicated and controversial figure, particularly for writers who came of age in my generation, when a great many people quite deliberately got him wrong and resented his changing his name, becoming a Muslim and, more than anything else, refusing to serve in Vietnam. I am a huge Ali fan.I thought him a great fighter, a remarkable, luminescent personality, a genuine original (unlike so many thin imitators who have come along since), in the end someone so large on the landscape that he transcended the smaller world of sports for the larger one of American history.
I was still a young reporter covering Civil Rights in the South when he burst on the scene in the late '50s and early '60s, and like many of my friends I was taken by his talent, his youth and joyousness. On that night in February 1964 when he fought what still seemed like the invincible Liston, I remember going to the theater with my friend, Gay Talese, and being frightened for him, scared that something young and fresh and original was going to be destroyed by something heavy and menacing.
His becoming a Muslim did not bother me. It seemed like a legitimate choice, a serious one for a complicated, bright, but alienated young man. Most important, it seemed to be a choice made out of conscience, which is the only thing that counts.
But a generation of older sportswriters, many of whom already disliked him because he seemed too boastful, were now even more offended -- he had changed his name, and joined up with a group that seemed to them to be outside the mainstream of American life, more openly hostile to their way of life than anything they had yet encountered. For a generation of men made uneasy by anything save the conventions they already accepted, what he represented was immensely threatening.
|Frazier's toughness as an opponent enhanced the legend of Ali's career.
When he refused induction, they became even angrier, though among the most vociferous there were few who had ever heard a shot fired in anger. That hardly bothered me: I had already spent two years in Vietnam as a correspondent, and my negative reporting about the war had angered two Presidents of the United States.
But the world of sportswriting which defined him in those days was immensely conservative; it is part of Ali's unique power and uncommon intelligence, the fact that he was well ahead of the curve, that he survived, true to himself, without changing, and it was the world of sportswriters which had to change in the coming years.
Sportwriting then reflected not merely older American values, but older unrecognized American prejudices, and Ali in so many ways seemed an affront to them, and to the extremely thin fabric of that era's tolerance.
There were a lot of sportswriters at that time who thought they were liberal because they had accepted the arrival of Jackie Robinson: in their view it was all right for black athletes to play against whites -- thus they were more enlightened than those who had gone before them -- but it was not all right for them to have opinions on anything except sports. If they spoke out on racism in general, then they had gone too far. (It was all right for Jackie Robinson to play baseball, but it was not all right for him to complain about how hard it was to find housing in a white neighborhood.) That was the generation of sportswriters who, deep into their careers, tried to call him Cassius Clay.
A generational faultline ran through American society in those days, and Ali (who spoke against the war publicly a year before Martin Luther King did), as much as anyone on the national scene, seemed to reveal it and define its prejudices and conflicting values: How you felt about Ali put you on one side or another in something much larger.
Ali, by the prevailing dominating opinion of the day, was supposed to be grateful for his right to fight; after all, the traditionalists would argue, look how much money he was making. He should accept his good fortune, and refrain from being a critic of America's domestic racial policies, let alone its foreign policy.
|Joe's right (to be bitter). I said a lot
of things in the heat of the moment that I
shouldn't have said. Called him names I shouldn't have called him. I apologize for that.
I'm sorry. It was all meant to promote the fight. ”
|— Muhammad Ali
To me, his stand on Vietnam was the rarest of things, a genuine act of conscience by a prominent American on a compelling moral issue about which he felt passionately, and for which he was willing to pay a very high price. It meant that someone at the very top of his profession was willing to give up the thing he cared about the most because of his beliefs -- extraordinary in any circumstance, but more so with someone like a fighter who has so brief a career. I remember the moment when all the top black athletes of the era gathered to meet with him, some of them trying to talk him out of it, suggesting that he play the game, go along with the draft, fight some exhibitions for Uncle Sam and not risk so much for, what seemed to many of them, so little.
But he refused to compromise his beliefs. That made him unique. Not just among fighters, not just among athletes, not just among blacks, but among all his fellow citizens. There were all kinds of people in the upper level of the U.S. government in those days, all of them better educated and seemingly more sophisticated than Ali, who dissented from Vietnam but who did not act on their beliefs. Because of that, Ali remains special to me -- the only high-level American who in effect resigned his job because of his beliefs on Vietnam.
I thought he was a brilliant figure, something of a comet who had burst upon us and for whom we had remarkably little preparation: joyous, funny, talented. He sometimes seemed like a great one-man, multi-act Broadway musical that was both tragedy and comedy, and for which he was author, director, and principal actor. With Ali everyone else got second billing.
But there was a dark side as well, the occasional cruelty to opponents both in and out of the ring, and that detracted from the rest of the performance; for whatever political baggage that they brought to the fight, it was unbecoming, hardly worth of him.
He was unnecessarily cruel to Floyd Patterson. More, he behaved badly with Frazier as well, talking about how ugly he was, and calling him an Uncle Tom. It was ugly stuff, mean and gratuitous. The hype of the fight hardly needed it, and it was unacceptably demeaning to Frazier.
Frazier after all was a great fighter, but not in any other way as gifted as Ali, unable to play the game with the media (and thus the public), a man who could only be a target in the game Ali was orchestrating. He could never, because of his limitations, quite get out of the box that Ali had consigned him to. Ali was born to do as well with the media as with his opponents; he could always speak for himself, Frazier never could. But in doing this, in letting the game become too cruel, Ali diminished in the eyes of those of us who admired him and wanted him in every way to be worthy of his own greatness.
The truth was that Joe Frazier was never a Tom, and he was not a white man's fighter, nor in any way was he political. When Ali was barred from fighting by the U.S. District, Frazier had spoken up for him and his right to fight. Frazier's only politics were his fists. Fighting was his only ticket out of the cruelest kind of poverty.
Frazier was the son of sharecroppers in South Carolina, closer in his roots to slavery than Ali, darker of skin when that still mattered a great deal more in this country, less advantaged than Ali in all ways, most especially physically. All he had was his will, and courage, the willingness to pay an awful price to maximize the one ticket he had been given to get out of poverty.
Only in courage were he and Ali equals. Lest we forget, they fought three times and in each fight there was little definable difference between the winner and loser. In the first fight, in March 1971, Frazier won in 15 rounds in an awesome bout; when it was over both fighters had to go to the hospital, and Frazier was unable to fight for another ten months.
The second fight, some three years later, was won by Ali in 12 rounds. The third, in September 1975, when Ali was 33, and Frazier 31, was the famous Thrilla in Manilla, perhaps the greatest fight of all time. At the end of it, when Frazier had tried to answer the bell for the 15th round, Eddie Futch, the referee, had stopped him, ended the fight, and had cut off Frazier's gloves.
"Sit down, son, it's all over," Futch said. Then he added: "No one will ever forget what you did here today."
Nor in 26 years have we forgotten yet.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has written 12 bestsellers, including Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, The Reckoning and Summer of '49, will write bi-weekly columns for Page 2.
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|Ali stated that his third fight with Frazier was the "closest thing to dyin' that I know of."