J oe Frazier is a man who took it as far as he could go. Very, very few of us will die saying we did everything we could in the thing we love.
His total commitment to his sport manifested itself not only in his successes in the ring, but in the way he fought. A comparatively small man for a heavyweight, much less a champion, Frazier was only 5’11 1/2” in an era which saw a Foreman at 6’4” and Ali at 6’3” and each well over 200 lbs, Frazier became a rare fighter with a rare technique. He is one of the rare fighters who never took a step back, never quit, never overlooked an opponent, and brought best effort to every single exchange. I’m reminded of a story I heard about another Joe, Joe DiMaggio when he was at the tail end of his career in the 50′s. Joe hit a routine grounder to third and ran it out all the way to first. On the way back to the dugout, a teammate stopped him and asked, “Hey Joe, why are you running those out? You don’t have to prove anything anymore” Joe replied, “There’s some kid up in those stands who’s only going to see me play just this once. He’s going to see Joe DiMaggio run that grounder out.”
They just don’t come like that very often.
Joe grew up in South Carolina to a bootlegger father. Desperately poor, his early life is literally the stuff of Americana. He worked on a corn farm in the poor south in the 50′s, and every now and again his father made liquor out of the corn they harvested to sell for extra money. Fight night in the Frazier household was the highlight of the week, and as the Fraziers had the only black and white TV any of the other black farmers had any hope of watching, that’s where the party was.
This is where Frazier’s life changed forever. The 50′s was a high time for boxing, and another small man, Rocky Marciano, dominated the heavyweight division. Joe and Rocky had many things in common: both were under 6 ft tall, and both had a powerful punch. For Joe the left, although he didn’t’ know it yet, and for the Rock, of course, the Suzie-Q right hand. But something else about the Rock’s style in the ring must have made an impact on Frazier as well. Relentlessness. Relentlessness in the face of adversity. Rocky Marciano was beloved not only as a great champion, but for his indominable will in the ring. No matter what, he kept coming forward. Look to fights like those against Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott, and you see a Marciano who continued on past the point of sanity to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Well behind on points against Walcott, he knocked an in-control Joe out with perhaps the hardest punch ever landed in the ring to score a late KO. For all I know Walcott is still dangling off that ring rope by his left arm like a wet towel. Against Charles, we see Marciano’s nose torn wide open in an unusual cut - split from bottom to top along the nostril so much so that a one can see space between the cut a full inch up his nose. And yet, the result was the same: W Marciano: KO.
That’s the lesson a young, poor black boy in South Carolina learns from the likes of Marciano and DiMaggio. No matter where you come from, if you take it all the way, never lack in courage, always accept the challenge with your best effort, you might just get out of there. So often in life we find ourselves facing fights from grounds we cannot possibly hope to hold. Race, poverty, the wealth and connections of others - all of these things conspire to beat down the unfortunate despite his efforts. This is the great and magical offering of the sporting field. Though the odds are long, when you step into that ring on onto that field, for one brief moment you alone control your destiny. The value of your skills and hard work will be tested – you have a true chance.
This lesson took Joe Frazier from Beufort, SC, to Philadelphia, four times to the national Golden Gloves title, all the way to Tokyo in ’64 and Olympic Gold, and finally to the pinnacle of sporting achievement: The heavyweight championship of the world. For a black man in the 60′s, that’s even better than President. It was less painful and it paid better.
That’s why our heroes have so much responsibility, and why PED’s and loaded gloves are such a travesty against humanity. Sure, Barry Bonds hit 762 home runs, but he did so by cheating. He took that chance at redemption for another poor sharecropper’s son or bootlegger’s nephew and sacrificed it on the alter of his own ego. It destroys the example of the common man and the dream that you can have your chance to grab that ball and show the world you can pitch. In a world of rich and poor, black and white, first and third world, these cheaters destroy the only sanctified symbol of the value of individual worth: The level playing field.
Those like Babe Ruth who acheive greatness on this level playing field become icons. If this person is also a great human being, the icon become a hero. It’s why, for me, the Jack Nicklaus will always stand above the Tiger Woods regardless of any final career numbers. They are the total package – the great knights in sports. We cherish them because when the great sportsman is is also the great man, he reminds us not just of what can be done, but to remember to look for those things in ourselves.
Joe Frazier is one of those.
For the rest of the story, check out parts 2 and 3.