Hoping Frazier found peace before death

“There is so much hate, so much contempt inside people,” Floyd Patterson once said, “that they hire prizefighters to do their hating for them.”

What occasioned these remarks was a merciless and hateful beating at the hands of Muhammad Ali, whom Patterson had made a point of calling Cassius Clay.

“What’s my name?” asked Ali, who exceeded Patterson by at least 15 pounds on the scales and nine inches in reach. Each question seemed to elicit a new volley of jabs and slashing right hands. “What’s my name?”

Ali tried his best to prolong Patterson’s agony and humiliation. But, finally, the bout was stopped in the 12th round. That was November, 1965.

And now, 46 years later, with the news that Joe Frazier has died at 67 of liver cancer, I find myself sorting through the makeshift boxing library on my shelves. The Patterson quote about fighters being proxies for haters — never more true than when Frazier fought Ali — is found on page 62 of Mark Kram’s masterful “Ghosts of Manila.” Even more striking, however, is Frazier’s own 1996 autobiography, “Smokin’ Joe,” in which he refuses to call Muhammad Ali anything but Cassius Clay.

To read Kram’s book is to understand Frazier’s own hate. Ali made him more famous than Frazier could have dreamed growing up as he did, one of 12 kids on a plantation in South Carolina. At 16, he was working in a Philadelphia slaughterhouse, an apprentice prizefighter under the tutelage of the great Yank Durham. Frazier won the heavyweight title in 1968, a year after Ali was stripped by the New York State Athletic Commission of his, that for his famously courageous declaration “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong.”

The standard image of Ali is one of relentless braggadocio. But Frazier saw another side, an exiled champion fearful and fretting.

“You’ll be back,” said Frazier. “Better than ever.”

“Joe, you the big man now,” said Ali. “You gotta keep my name out there.”

And he did. From “Ghosts,” page 26: “Frazier lobbied the press, Commission people, and rallied some old champs like Joe Louis, who was unsympathetic to Ali, largely because of his black nationalism, his loud presentation of self and his evasion of the military.”

In return, by the time of their first fight, the sharecroppers’ son found himself cast as the White Man’s Champion, which is to say, a proxy for white hatred. But also, unwittingly and tragically, a target for black hatred, too. Ali called him ignorant, compared him to a gorilla, and labeled his supporters Uncle Toms.

It was billed as the “Fight of the Century,” and I remember, as an 8-year-old living just a few blocks from Madison Square Garden, the inescapable sense that the venue itself was being transformed, that tribes of adults would be settling their scores vicariously on March 8, 1971. The fighters themselves were physical archetypes. Ali was the first-of-a-kind, so lean and long and fast. On the other hand, Frazier — not much bigger than Patterson — was familiar; the crouching, stalking, left-hooker.

As it happened, it was a thunderous left hook that dropped Ali in the 15th round, enabling Frazier to win by unanimous decision. But the shot to Ali’s jaw seemed less improbable than Frazier’s expectation — that it would somehow silence the critics and gentle his condition with the haters, both white and black.

How naïve. The rivalry would endure two more fights — another 26 rounds, the last 14 of which are known as the “Thrilla in Manila,” fought in October 1975. Twenty years later, I remember Eddie Futch, who became Frazier’s head trainer after Durham’s death, still narrating the end of that fight: “By the 11th round, Frazier’s left eye started getting real big. By the 12th, it was half closed. . . . In the 13th, Ali hit him with a right hand, knocked Joe’s mouthpiece about six rows into the seats. The eye was shut, but I figured I’d let him go out for the 14th. He couldn’t see from the eye, but he still had his strength.”

Strength wasn’t enough, though. When the round was over, Futch told the ref his man was done. Then he went back to his fighter’s corner. “Fight’s over, Joe.”

Frazier stood to protest. Futch, the slight old trainer, put a hand on his shoulder. “Sit down, Joe.”

You know Frazier would’ve gladly traded his eye to fight that 15th round.

“The closest you can be to death.” That’s how Ali described Manila.

But only death is death. And now it comes to Joe Frazier. There’s a reason everybody knows his name. And there’s a reason to hope he’s been liberated — not from Muhammad Ali, but from the hate.