Ali, Frazier Through The Years

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HBO's new sports documentary Thrilla In Manila has been praised as a much needed corrective to the mythology of Muhammad Ali. But I watched this weekend and came away feeling like Joe Frazier got the bad end of this one. Again.

Thrilla doesn't really reveal much that's new, but revels in Ali's ugliness. We hear about how Frazier supported Ali after he was stripped of his belt, and lobbied for his return. How Ali upon his return, taunted Frazier mercilessly, calling him ugly, dumb and deriding him with the racially charged term "The Gorilla."  But most of this was presented a few years back in a much better HBO doc--Ali-Frazier I. (See it. It's great.)

The core problem with this doc, as it is with most correctives, is that it subscribes to the same sort of moralistic, heavy-handed, simple-minded logic that it allegedly seeks to debunk. Thus while the public image of Ali as this gleaming unvarnished hero is ridiculous, Thrilla's answer is to offer an equally ridiculous image of Ali as a scheming villain who didn't really win the two fights against Frazier, and robbed him of his rightful place as the greatest of all time.

There really is no question about the horrifying public humiliation that Frazier suffered at the hands of Ali. Demeaning him as gorilla, attacking him for having a "flat nose," calling him ugly, and then dismissing him as an Uncle Tom and a tool of the white man, show just how mean Ali could be.

But what Thrilla never seems to get, is the broader context of professional sports, and professional boxing in particular. This isn't square dancing--this is simulated war, the pursuit of total domination of an opponent. And as in war, that domination begins with the mind. In that endeavor, Frazier may have been Ali's most spectacular victim, but he wasn't the only one.  Ali once showed up at Floyd Patterson's camp with a bunch of carrots, after deriding him as "a rabbit." His description of Frazier as "ugly" mirrored his criticism of Sonny Liston a generation earlier. Moreover, weaker fighters suffered even worse--think Ali beating the hell out of Ernie Terrell while yelling "What's my name, Uncle Tom?" throughout the fight.

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It's worth considering the man Ali is often compared with--Michael Jordan. Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time. I think, as a feat of human toughness and ingenuity, the development of his turn-around jumper, in the latter days of his career, is just incredible. But Jordan--despite making untold billions on his image--isn't loved because he was a nice man. To the contrary, his own teammates hated him. He reputedly kept Isiah Thomas off the Dream-Team, and would physically threaten people who fouled him hard.

Jordan was a killer, a kind of dream-shatterer, who loved every minute of it. Ditto for Ali. Like Jordan, as a younger athlete he triumphed almost through pure god-given talent--he was just so incredibly fast. But like Jordan's turn-around jumper, as an older fighter, Ali developed a toughness that he didn't need as a younger fighter. And like Jordan he tormented his opposition seeking to mentally dominate them from the moment the ink was dry on the contract, up through training, and into the final round.

What you see in a deeply embittered Joe Frazier is a mental domination that, regrettably, has stretched over decades with unintended results. Frazier is still seeing Ali in his sleep. Frazier is still pushing the case that he was deeply wronged by Ali. Frazier's allies are still pushing the case that he really won the last two fights.  Frazier is, most unfortunately, pushing the notion that cosmic justice (for the slights against Frazier) explain Ali's current condition. He seems blind to his own unfortunate physical condition.

I'd propose a different question--Is it the fact that Ali humiliated Frazier that burns, or is it the fact that he lost? Would Frazier still be bitter at Ali had he won one of those last two fights? Is what really burns him that Ali degraded him? Or is it that Ali degraded him, and it worked, the thing that burns?

It's funny because I always thought that anyone would have been bitter it would be George Foreman. Frazier is an acknowledged warrior who, by the lights of most boxing fans, thought to be Ali's peer as a boxer. But Foreman was an overwhelming favorite, who seemed to be dominating a fight, and then just like that, it was taken from him. And Foreman was bitter for a time, but he evidently came out of it--knocking out a heavyweight champ at age 40 will do that though.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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