I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Joe Frazier as the first anniversary of his death (November 7, 2011) approaches.
I met Joe at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas on December 1, 1988. I’d just signed a contract to become Muhammad Ali’s official biographer. Two days of taping were underway for a documentary entitled Champions Forever that featured Ali, Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton, and Larry Holmes. I was there to conduct interviews for my book.
On the first morning, I sat at length with Foreman; the pre-lean-mean-grilling-machine model. George was twenty months into a comeback that was widely regarded as a joke. Six more years would pass before he knocked out Michael Moorer to regain the heavyweight throne.
“There was a time in my life when I was sort of unfriendly,” George told me. “Zaire was part of that period. I was going to knock Ali’s block off, and the thought of doing it didn’t bother me at all. After the fight, for a while I was bitter. I had all sorts of excuses. The ring ropes were loose. The referee counted too fast. The cut hurt my training. I was drugged. I should have just said the best man won, but I’d never lost before so I didn’t know how to lose. I fought that fight over in my head a thousand times. Then, finally, I realized I’d lost to a great champion; probably the greatest of all time. Now I’m just proud to be part of the Ali legend. If people mention my name with his from time to time, that’s enough for me. That, and I hope Muhammad likes me, because I like him. I like him a lot.”
Then I moved on to Ken Norton, who shared a poignant memory.
“When it counted most,” Norton reminisced, “Ali was there for me. In 1986, I was in a bad car accident. I was unconscious for I don’t know how long. My right side was paralyzed; my skull was fractured; I had a broken leg, a broken jaw. The doctors said I might never walk again. For a while, they thought I might not ever even be able to talk. I don’t remember much about my first few months in the hospital. But one thing I do remember is, after I was hurt, Ali was one of the first people to visit me. At that point, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to live or die. That’s how bad I was hurt. Like I said, there’s a lot I don’t remember. But I remember looking up, and there was this crazy man standing by my bed. It was Ali, and he was doing magic tricks for me. He made a handkerchief disappear; he levitated. I said to myself, if he does one more awful trick, I’m gonna get well just so I can kill him. But Ali was there, and his being there helped me. So I don’t want to be remembered as the man who broke Muhammad Ali’s jaw. I just want to be remembered as a man who fought three close competitive fights with Ali and became his friend when the fighting was over.”
Larry Holmes held out for cash, so our conversation was short: “I’m proud I learned my craft from Ali,” Larry said. “I’m prouder of sparring with him when he was young than I am of beating him when he was old.”
End of conversation.
That left Joe.
Frazier wouldn’t talk with me because I was “Ali’s man.” But at an evening party after the second day of taping, Joe approached me. He’d been drinking. And the vile spewed out:
“I hated Ali. God might not like me talking that way, but it’s in my heart. First two fights, he tried to make me a white man. Then he tried to make me a nigger. How would you like it if your kids came home from school crying because everyone was calling their daddy a gorilla? God made us all the way we are. He made us the way we talk and look. And the way I feel, I’d like to fight Ali-Clay-whatever-his-name-is again tomorrow. Twenty years, I’ve been fighting Ali, and I still want to take him apart piece by piece and send him back to Jesus.”
Joe saw that I was writing down every word. This was a message he wanted the world to hear.
“I didn’t ask no favors of him, and he didn’t ask none of me. He shook me in Manila; he won. But I sent him home worse than he came. Look at him now. He’s damaged goods. I know it; you know it. Everyone knows it; they just don’t want to say. He was always making fun of me. I’m the dummy; I’m the one getting hit in the head. Tell me now; him or me, which one talks worse now? He can’t talk no more, and he still tries to make noise. He still wants you to think he’s the greatest, and he ain’t. I don’t care how the world looks at him. I see him different, and I know him better than anyone. Manila really don’t matter no more. He’s finished, and I’m still here.”
Twenty-one months later, when I finished writing Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, I journeyed to Ali’s home in Berrian Springs, Michigan. Lonnie Ali (Muhammad’s wife), Howard Bingham (Ali’s longtime friend and personal photographer), and I spent a week reading every word of the manuscript aloud. By agreement, there would be no censorship. Our purpose in reading was to ensure the factually accuracy of the book.
In due course, Lonnie read Frazier’s quote aloud.
There was a silent moment.
“Did you hear that, Muhammad?” Lonnie asked.
“How do you feel, knowing that hundreds of thousands of people will read that?”
“It's what he said,” Muhammad answered.
Ali’s thoughts ended that chapter of the book.
“I’m sorry Joe Frazier is mad at me. I’m sorry I hurt him. Joe Frazier is a good man. I couldn’t have done what I did without him, and he couldn’t have done what he did without me. And if God ever calls me to a holy war, I want Joe Frazier fighting beside me.”
On the final day of our reading, Muhammad, Lonnie, Howard, and I signed a pair of boxing gloves to commemorate the experience. I took one of the gloves home with me. Howard took the other.
The following spring, I was in Philadelphia for a black-tie gala celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the historic first fight between Ali and Frazier. This was Joe’s night. It was a fight he’d won. But his hatred for all things Ali was palpable.
Early in the evening, Howard suggested that I pose for a photo with Muhammad and Joe. I stood between them. Joe wrapped his arm around my waist in what I thought was a gesture of friendship. Then, just as Howard snapped the photo, Joe dug his fingers into the flesh beneath my ribs.
It hurt like hell.
I tried to pry his hand away.
You try prying Joe Frazier’s hand away.
When Joe was satisfied that he’d inflicted sufficient pain, he smirked at me and walked off.
Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times was published in June 1991. Joe decided that I’d treated him fairly. In the years that followed, when our paths crossed, he was warm and friendly. A ritual greeting evolved between us.
Joe would smile and say, “Hey! How’s my Jewish friend?”
I’d smile and say, “Hey! How’s my Baptist friend?”
Fast-forward to January 7, 2005. Joe was in my home. We were eating ice cream in the kitchen.
Three boxing gloves were hanging on the wall. The first two were worn by Billy Costello in his victorious championship fight against Saoul Mamby. That fight has special meaning to me. It’s the subject of the climactic chapter in The Black Lights, my first book about boxing.
The other glove bore the legend:
Howard L. Bingham
9/10 – 9/17/90
Joe asked about the gloves. I explained their provenance. Then he said something that surprised me.
“Do you remember that time I gave you the claw?”
“I remember,” I said grimly.
“I’m sorry, man. I apologize.”
That was Joe Frazier. He remembered every hurt that anyone ever inflicted upon him. With regard to Ali, he carried those hurts like broken glass in his stomach for his entire life.
But Joe also remembered the hurts he’d inflicted on other people. And if he felt he’d done wrong, given time he would try to right the situation.
There’s now a fourth glove hanging on the wall of my kitchen. It bears the inscription:
Tom, to my man
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His most recent book (And the New: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing) was published by the University of Arkansas Press.