Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sit Down, Son, It's All Over

Way back then, I barely remember it, as I was a little boy in those days, my dad used to wake me up at 4pm in the morning, so we could watch the heavy weight boxing matches on TV together. Boxing was at its prime in the seventies, and Muhammad Ali the most famous man on earth. But every famous man needs another famous man to make him famous. These men were George Foreman and Joe Frazier, Ali's arch rivals of his second career - the first one had stalled when he refused to go to Vietnam and was sent to prison instead - fighting it out for the heavy weight crown of the world for almost a decade. 

Watching those fights was enormously fascinating for little boy Yorikirii. Two big strong black men, hitting, sweating and bleeding, dancing and punching from the bell to the knockout. The crowd cheering at every hit, jumping up to their feet when final defeat seemed near. The referee, usually a tiny white guy - do I hear slave master here? - warning both fighters to fight by the rules and stepping in if the fight got out of hand. And the announcer, the Las Vegas version of a Sotheby's' auctioneer, shouting dramatically, as if Shakespeare had come to the ring, that in the right corner, in the blue trunks, you had Joeeee Fraaaaziiiier, and in the left corner, in his red trunks, there was Muhaaammaaaaad Aaaaaaliiiiii.

Black Power: Joe Frazier

When Frazier and Ali met for the first time, in New York City in 1971, for the "Fight of the Century", everybody rich and famous was at ringside. Frank Sinatra took pictures for Life Magazine, and Norman Mailer wrote about the match. The Black Power Movement had replaced Martin Luther King's pacific civil rights movement as the voice for the African-American fight to create black political and cultural institutions in order to nurture and promote black collective interests. The rivalry between Ali and Frazier was therefore given a political and social cast as well (to quote Richard Goldstein in New York Times). Many viewed the Ali-Frazier matches as a snapshot to the struggles of the 1960s. Ali, an adherent of the Nation of Islam who had changed his name from Cassius Clay, came to represent rising black anger in America and opposition to the Vietnam war. Frazier voiced no political views, but was nonetheless depicted, to his consternation, as the favorite of the establishment. Ali called him ignorant, likened him to a gorilla and said his black supporters were Uncle Toms. "Frazier had become the white man's fighter, Mr. Charley was rooting for Frazier, and that meant blacks were boycotting him in their heart", so Norman Mailer in his article for Life

Frazier was able to beat Ali in New York City - the Vietnam war only ended two years later - with the greatest left hook in boxing history. But the rivalry wouldn't stop there. They would meet again, the last time in the Philippines in 1975, a bout marketed and embraced by the dubious regime of Ferndinand Marcos. The fight was called "The Thrilla in Manila" and it went down as the greatest boxing fight in history. Ali taunted Frazier as being the gorilla of Manila (no aspirations for the Nobel Prize in Literature there), and in the end, it was Ali who won, but at the price of a near death experience, having absorbed 440 blows from Frazier over 14 rounds. Frazier's coach Eddie Futch had stopped the slaughterhouse between round 14 and 15, seeing that his fighter was unable to continue. Nine months after the fight, Frazier announced his retirement, and Muhammad Ali was never the same man again. Now suffering from Parkinson's disease, he is unable to speak and almost paralyzed. Both men had gone to meet their own "Manila" on this October 1, 1975.

Sit down, son, it's all over: The Thrilla in Manila

Joe Frazier has died on November 7, 2011. My dad is ill, and his days are numbered, his doctor told me. I sometimes regret the lost opportunities my dad and I had, because we didn't talk to each other enough, because we didn't do enough things together while we could have. But thinking about Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Joe Frazier, and the great heavy weight fights of the seventies, I know that the past is okay. We had our shared moments, my dad and I.

For more on the Black Power Movement, see "The Blackpower Mixtape 1969 - 1975", produced by Danny Glover.