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This excerpt appears in Bouts of Mania: Ali, Frazier, and Foreman, and an America on the Ropes by Richard Hoffer. Click here for our interview with the author.
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This fight was going to have political overtones no matter who was in it. Just by the circumstance of history, these diversions occurring at a time of such civic unrest, there were bound to be theses posited, symbols stretched, conclusions drawn. There was so much confusion—some young people dying in distant rice paddies but others marching and rioting in opposition to their cause—that almost any public event could be freighted with significance, a possible point of clarity. A fight? It had to stand for something, right?
No matter who was in it, Life would have likely done a cover story, if only to counterbalance a national misery. The event offered the country a chance to avert its gaze, if just for a week, or only a night. As it happened, Life did run a cover story on the upcoming fight: “The Battle of the Undefeated.” It was, in addition to being a behind-the-scenes look at the two fighters, a publishing respite from the international indignity of Vietnam, although that too was incorporated in the issue. “Calley Takes the Stand” was the other big story that week, an Army lieutenant on trial for the murder of 102 men, women, and children during the massacre, of three years before, at My Lai.
It was interesting to think, if one let one’s imagination run wild, that Ali could just as easily have appeared in the one article as the other. The only difference, unlike Calley and his troops and a shifting proportion of the American public, was that Ali had no quarrel with those unsuspecting villagers.
Ali had not, in the time of his exile, found reason to repudiate any of Gorgeous George’s lessons of polarization. He sensed quite correctly that he was a symbol of the Left, any who opposed the war or the increasingly unpopular politics of the time. He was for the youth, for the disaffected, the persecuted, anybody whose principles had been abridged by patriotism. He was against tradition, entrenched policies, and authority. Although this incorporated a growing segment of America—by 1971 the antiwar movement was no longer the exclusive province of hippies and the otherwise disenfranchised—it still left a large portion, perhaps even a majority, who resented his presence. This was still a powerful population, still quite a vast territory on the American landscape. Ali, for the purposes of the promotion, assigned it to Frazier.
The idea that just because Ali stood for something, he must also, baffled Frazier. When did he pick sides? He’d never talked politics, race, or religion. How did he get involved in a national debate? Here was Ali saying, “That Joe Frazier, he’s gonna get telephone calls and telegrams from folks in Georgia and Alabama and Mississippi saying, ‘Joe Frazier, you be a white man tonight and stop that draft-dodging nigger.’” Frazier had a high tolerance for Ali’s two-sided personality when it came to most fight publicity—he didn’t mind terribly if Ali called him “chump” or otherwise disrespected him; Ali’s stunts seemed mostly in fun—and he might have choked back his anger when Ali said he “was too ugly to be champ . . . too dumb to be champ.” But this was outrageous. Frazier the white man? Frazier, of southern poverty, raised in discrimination, was far blacker than Ali was, a kid raised in middle-class comfort, more advantages than Frazier could have dreamed of. “He’s the wrong kind of Negro,” Ali said. “He’s not like me, ’cause he’s the Uncle Tom. He works for the enemy.” Ali was actually calling him an “Uncle Tom”?
Ali dictated all terms of discourse, however, and neither logic nor good taste would interfere with his narrative. As Schulberg pointed out, “Ali was a recognized shibboleth. He divided sheep from goats, peaceniks from gung-hoers, leftists and liberals from conservatives and reactionaries.” Ali, in his entrepreneurial cruelty, divided Frazier right out of his own race.
“Nobody wants to talk to him,” Ali explained to some writers before the fight. “Oh, maybe Nixon will call him if he wins. I don’t think he’ll call me. But 99 per cent of my people are for me. They identify with my struggle. Same one they’re fighting every day in the streets. If I win, they win. If I lose, they lose.”
The rhetoric was so attractive that even the black press bought into the division. In its walk-up to the fight, Ebony admitted that Frazier “would be especially appreciated by the conservative blacks and, though probably not to his liking, by many Caucasians who see him, ironically, as some kind of ‘Great White Hope.’ They want to see Frazier whip ‘that uppity loud nigger Clay!’” Jet called him an “unheralded white-created champion.” The young editor of the magazine Black Sports, Bryant Gumbel, wondered, “Is Joe Frazier a white champion in a black skin?”
Frazier didn’t know how to respond, how to reset the debate. Ali was talking about a mission “to free 30 million black people,” explaining how he’d “win this fight because I’ve got a cause. Frazier has no cause. He’s in it for the money alone.” This was simply preposterous, that Ali wasn’t in it for the monstrous paycheck as well. Frazier couldn’t get over it. But he thought his enormous self-assurance would be enough to neutralize Ali’s bluster. What more would be necessary? “I don’t want to be no more than I am,” answered Frazier, trying to restore the normal rules of the ring. His equanimity in public was impressive, but inwardly he was seething. “I ain’t no Tom,” he’d say in camp.
But there was no way to restore the conditions of a normal heavyweight championship fight. It had been more than that to begin with—nobody gets $2.5 million for a normal fight—and now it had escalated into some kind of national referendum, a spot check on civil rights, racial dignity, you name it. Ali, plumbing his talents for provocation, had spun this affair so far beyond the athletic realm that now playwrights, novelists, and screenwriters had to be ringside to properly interpret the results. This was, according to one essay headline published in the New York Times, “The All-Time Fascination Bout.” Ali had been sassy, outrageous, shrewd, and unfair to a fault. And seats were selling out everywhere, in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, in London, where theatergoers were preparing for a 4:30 a.m. performance. They sold out in Los Angeles, where, to accommodate an overflow, fans were seated behind the screen, watching the action in reverse. More than five thousand fans bought tickets at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, in eighteen--degree weather, some of them coming all the way from Buffalo, where the venues had filled. They sold out in French bistros, German beer halls, Italian hotels. The streets of Buenos Aires were empty. In Manila schoolchildren brought televisions to class.