“SMOKIN’ JOE: THE LIFE OF JOE FRAZIER” — a goddamn book review

I’ve always been fascinated by the Muhammad Ali/Joe Frazier saga. And have read a lot about it. But usually written from Ali’s perspective. So it’s interesting to see how it unfolded from Frazier’s perspective.

It was Joe Frazier’s misfortune (as well as fortune — he made a ton of money off of Ali) to come along during Ali’s era. And he will forever remain in Ali’s shadow. Ali’s perennial foil. Which doesn’t do justice to his greatness as a fighter. In the ring, Ali and Frazier were almost exactly evenly matched (though it should be noted that their fights came while Ali was a couple years past his prime). All three fights were extremely close and could have easily gone the other way. And even though Frazier won the first fight, he had taken such a beating he had to spend several weeks in the hospital recovering, and for awhile they thought he might even die from the damage. And even though Ali won the third fight, he was much more physically beat up after that fight than Frazier. That’s how close it was.

Due to Ali’s incredible showmanship, artistry, and cultural icon status, he elevated his boxing matches to something much more than just fights. He turned the boxing ring into something more akin to a stage in a Shakespearean drama. And “Frazier and Ali” will forever live on as the “Romeo and Juliet” of the sport

The book goes into detail about the hatred Frazier had for Ali because of all the derogatory stuff Ali said about him (Frazier even went after Ali once with a tire iron). Calling him an “Uncle Tom” (because most of the white people were rooting for Frazier to beat up the Black Muslim Ali) and a “dumb beast” and a “gorilla” — the kind of taunts a racist white person might hurl at a black. But Ali always claimed he didn’t mean it, he was just saying it to hype the bouts (“No one possessed the promotional acuity of Ali. He slipped in and out of personas as if he was picking costumes out of an old trunk.”). And trying to get into Frazier’s head as a psychological ploy. But Ali would later admit that he went too far. And he publicly apologized many times, and made many attempts to reach out to Frazier. All of which were rebuffed by Frazier.

So I figured Frazier never forgave Ali and went to his grave hating his guts.

So I was surprised to find out in this book that they actually reconciled near the end of Ali’s life. Ali invited Frazier to join him for dinner at the 2002 NBA All-Star Game. And to everyone’s surprise Frazier accepted the offer. Ali sat at one end of the table, Frazier at the other. Ali was in pretty feeble shape at the time, drooling when he ate, and had to have a bib on. But at one point, Ali stared at Frazier and bit his lower lip in a gesture of pretend ferocity and said:

“Joe Frazier. Joe Frazier. Joe Frazier. I want you. Hey, Gorilla.”

Frazier dropped his fork and said: “Man, Butterfly. I kicked your ass for three goddamn fights. Are we going to have to go at it again?”

Ali was laughing so hard he was crying. Ha ha.

Later, Frazier and Ali sat side by side at the All-Star Game. And all the NBA players looked up at them with reverance and awe.

This is a fun book. Anyone who lived through the ’60s and ’70s and followed Smokin’ Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali in real time and “The Fight Of The Century!!” and all that will enjoy reading this autobiography and re-living it all. And it even made me cry at the end when Joe and Ali finally buried the hatchet.

One Joe Frazier trivia: People might remember that Joe wanted to break into show business and toured the clubs with his band — Joe Frazier and the Knockouts. And predictably he liked James Brown and Marvin Gaye and Ray Charles and all that stuff. But one of his favorite songs was “Proud Mary” by Creedance Clearwater Revival (El Ceritto’s finest). He’d ride around town in his Cadillac and say to his backup singer who was riding along with him whenever that song came on the radio. “Let’s sing this one again.” She’d think: “Not again, Joe.” But then they’d sing along one more time. Practicing their harmonies. Ha ha.

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