Some More Thoughts on Boxing and Smokin' Joe

To the uninitiated, boxing looks easy—just a couple of palookas hitting each other for a paycheck. Hey, most of them can barely speak English, right? Check out the diction and syntax on Larry Holmes or James Toney. It is easy to dismiss what is traditionally known as “the sweet science” as, at best, a barbaric experiment.

That’s what I thought until 2004, when I started taking boxing lessons from a 60-year-old man at a local gym. A couple months in, he suggested that we spar for the first time. Why not? This is the first test of a young fighter’s prowess and, by extension, a young man’s pride. During practice, my combinations were sharp; my defense was quick (“impregnable,” as Mike Tyson would say). More important, I was 19; he was 60 and had an artificial hip. I didn’t think it would be easy, but I thought I could at least walk away with some sense of masculinity left intact.

I barely lasted two rounds. I’ll resort to cliche and say it was like fighting a ghost. My punches missed by a foot. I had no timing. I got hit with even the slowest jab. Before I knew it was a jab, I was hit with another one. I moved my head too late. My feet and legs felt heavy, as if wrapped in wet towels. I was out of breath after one minute. I couldn’t land anything. The old man was too quick for a teenager. Eventually, after another year of training, I was able to go eight or nine rounds with a younger sparring partner, but those first few experiences were like nothing I had ever felt before. No workout can compare to boxing—real boxing, not that aerobic postiche that middle-aged women do. You can’t breathe; you can’t see; your shoulders hurt so much you can barely hold your arms up; you’re getting popped in the nose, the solar plexus, the liver; and, worst of all, you have to fight back.

Try doing that for fifteen rounds, which was how long championship bouts used to be (it was changed to twelve during the 1980s). There’s a certain nostalgia among boxing historians for the fifteen-rounder. It is supposed to represent a titanic age, when no fighter lifted weights and when the rings were free of advertisements. Smokin’ Joe Frazier was a member of that generation, and part of the sadness over his death is not only that we lost one of America’s best gentlemen, but that we lost one of the last living symbols of boxing’s glorious past.

I once fought a grandfather and lost. I can only dream, or have nightmares, about what it felt like to fight Joe Frazier in his prime. He could, with his left hook, put most men in either the hospital or the morgue. Again, to the uninitiated, Frazier’s style looks sloppy and reckless: he seems to charge into his opponents with no concern for strategy. When he bobs and weaves, he leans forward a bit too much and looks down at the canvas. That’s what most people see. What they miss are the subtle shifts in weight and the slick and relentless head movements that prevented his opponents from hitting him as he moved inside. Every good infighter, from Tyson to Toney, has learned from watching Joe Frazier close the gap on an opponent.

Unfortunately, there’s a substantial but often overlooked political angle to the whole story. Regarding Frazier’s feud with Muhammad Ali, Daniel Foster of National Review Online has aptly observed:

The Frazier–Ali split is supposed to be a conservative–liberal thing, and according to some, preferring the former to the latter is supposed to be vaguely racist, to boot.

This is because Frazier was calm, modest, respectful, and disdainful of empty rhetoric. Ali, to the guardians of respectable opinion, was the “real” black man, the radical who ditched his “slave name” Cassius Clay and who refused to fight in Vietnam. But with time, it became clear that Ali’s persona was designed to evade as well as to provoke. Though a brilliant fighter, he always relied more on speed than on perfect boxing technique. As he got older and slower, his showmanship became more crass, as if he was desperate to cover up his eroding skill with profanity. Ali’s lowest point was when he, borrowing racialist tactics from the Nation of Islam, referred to Frazier as a “gorilla.” The subtext to Ali’s taunting was that Frazier was nothing more than an Uncle Tom, the white man’s black hope.

As usual, the subject of race keeps us from seeing what is most salient. Smokin’ Joe was never anybody’s tool. He devoted the rest of his life to teaching kids his own version of the sweet science in order to keep them off the streets. Most older boxing fans lament the degeneration of the sport into the Don King world of glitzy corruption, with loud-mouthed punks in shiny trunks. They are Ali’s legacy, to be sure. And though Frazier was forever haunted by Ali’s larger shadow, its Frazier’s persona—that of the quiet warrior, a la Joe Louis—that true fans are nostalgic for. His legacy is therefore much greater.