Editor’s note: Tony Bender is on vacation. This is a favorite from 2011.
I was leaning on the railing of the riverboat to get away from the crowd inside when the man joined me, and we leaned against the railing together watching the waters of the Missouri chop past us. I had known of him since I was a child when he was the king of them all in a season of heavyweights the likes of which will never be seen again.
He carried himself like a warrior king, and though he spoke gently to me as the water washed past, there was an aura of contained fierceness about him, as if there was a storm inside—a hurricane that could be called forth if he needed it. I felt a twinge of guilt because all those years before, I had wanted him to fall.
It was 1971 and Muhammad Ali and his revolutionary chic captivated me as he emerged from exile to reclaim his crown. That’s how it was all supposed to play out, but in the other corner, in green and gold trunks, stood the man with the crown, painted as unworthy by Ali, derided, but unbeaten nonetheless.
Now, almost 20 years later, Joe Frazier stood beside me as the big paddle splashed furiously behind us, and the eastern shoreline rolled out like a divine scroll. We talked softly as if the scene would melt if it heard us. The blue water… sand bars swirling back to a green, tree-covered shoreline. Blue skies, billowing cumulus clouds. I studied him, a contradiction of decency and ferocity, and in that moment I felt compelled to confess my youthful betrayal—but what purpose would it serve?
Things were different two decades earlier. We, as a nation, were grappling with the meaning of honor. We had begun to question our leaders; Ali had stood up to them and had become a hero to a new unsettled generation.
If Ali was the hero in our eyes, that meant someone had to be the foil, and so Joe Frazier was cast in the part. No one knew he had worked behind the scenes to help Ali win his boxing license back, that he had lent Ali money. No one knew what was boiling inside him as Ali called this proud black man an Uncle Tom. Somehow, those of us who loved him were able to rationalize Ali’s mean spiritedness. His whimsical misdirection kept us from seeing that in this cruel game all who enter the ring are at some level, cruel men.
Even though it was July, there was a chill riding up from the water as we talked. He was curious about this place, so I told him about Lewis and Clark, the hills along the shore where the Mandan Indians had once thrived. How Custer had ridden to his doom from these hills.
His dark skin was smooth, his chest still broad, dressed immaculately, he still moved like an unsatisfied hungry cat. Inside, after the press conference, reporters mixed with the combatants—Virgil Hill and Tyrone Frazier, Joe’s adopted son.
I mourned when Ali lost in 1971, sent hurtling like Icarus to the canvas in the last round by the greatest left hook the gods ever made, red tassels flying from his shoes, punctuating what everyone knew already was a Joe Frazier victory. I mourned again at the carnage when Ali won in Manilla, a fight so destructive, Eddie Futch, Frazier’s trainer, who had seen eight men die in the ring, stopped it out of love for the man after the fourteenth round even as Ali begged in the other corner for Angelo Dundee to cut his gloves off. Frazier, who by that time was fighting blind, was furious. And Ali was never the same.
I mourned Joe Frazier last week when they said he was dead at 67. I went downstairs to see the signed boxing glove I got as a gift a few years ago. There it was, hanging proudly on the wall, the autograph strong and sure—the mark of a warrior king.
Muhammad Ali mourns Joe Frazier today. He was one of the great architects of the Ali myth, and when the grand portrait of Ali is complete, we will see that many of the best brushstrokes were Smokin’ Joe Frazer’s.
The boat continued upstream. We must have stood there 15 minutes and never talked about boxing. Where to begin when the subject must immediately lead to grand notions such as destiny and fate—the willingness to die for pride? These are not topics for mortals like me. Only the giants themselves understand.
He could not get over how picturesque it all was here, 1,600 miles from the grit of the Philadelphia streets and blood, spit and sweat of Joe Frazier’s Gym. “Sure is beautiful,” he said, his voice something above a whisper.
Indeed it was.