The nature of heroism, part the second.
”Life doesn’t run away from nobody. Life runs at people.” Joe Frazier
Joe Frazier died this week at the age of 67. The news has been full of remembrances and it’s been interesting to listen and match what is being said with what I remember. Now, I’m not really a boxing girl. I first remember paying attention to the sport watching the 1984 Olympics in an abandoned house in Brussels that we’d commandeered for the evening with a tv and some beer. We watched boxing and I thought, “Hey this isn’t just some brutal fight, this is actually a sport. There’s an art to this.” And when you think of “art” when you think boxing, Joe Frazier doesn’t come to mind, Mohamed Ali does. And what a story there, folks.
Not being a boxing girl, I’d never really realized the animosity between the two. Oh yeah, you watch pre-fight interviews of any fight match and there’s the usual trash-talking. That’s the norm at this point, isn’t it? But Ali took it a step further. He brought race into it. He called Frazier “Uncle Tom.” He called him “a gorilla”. If that happened nowadays he’d be forced to apologize on national tv and then go to rehab (because apparently that’s what you do when you screw up royally in the media). And it worked: it made the public sit up and notice, and it made the fight a spectacle. It was what Ali did, and God knows, he did it well. The man knew how to publicize before it was a real industry.
We forget that. We forget that Ali was willing to use a racial slur against another black man to promote a fight. We forget because he’s Mohamed Ali – he’s our hero and that doesn’t go with our version of what a hero does.
This is not where I say it’s an “American” thing, because I think this happens the world over. It’s a “human” thing. Why do we close our eyes to the horrible things the people we admire do? Why do we conveniently forget that Ali made racial comments about an opponent just to publicize a fight? Why do we forget that Coco Chanel collaborated with the Germans? Is it because we want to believe that those we look up to are better than us? Or is it because we demand such utter perfection from them that we cannot abide the slightest human imperfection?
Joe Frazier felt betrayed by Ali’s comments, back when their fight was heating up. He felt betrayed because he admired Ali – admired his fighting, but more importantly, admired his stance on the Vietnam war. Ali said more than a mouthful when he said, “”I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong”, refused his induction and was promptly banned from boxing for three years.
Frazier was short and somewhat squat and solid and so brutal that he once broke one of his sparing partners ribs. He fought. That was his job and he did it. He was a different style than Ali, and that’s just what it is. The only two men to ever beat Joe Frazier were Mohamed Ali and George Foreman.
Our heroes inspire us. They make us want to be better, to follow in their footsteps or just to get through the day. We do that best when we remember that they are human and fallible, like us. They are not a separate species. They are us.
“They told me Joe Frazier was through,” Ali told Frazier at one point during the fight.
“They lied,” Frazier said, before hitting Ali with a left hook.