The Frazier-Ali Morality Play


I've been thinking about this column all week, and this particular opening graff:

Some people mean more together than they do apart, whatever the stage. Churchill and Hitler. Bogart and Bacall. Ali and Frazier. And for all the deserved accolades for Muhammad Ali, I've always believed that each at his best, Joe Frazier, who died Monday night at age 67, was the better fighter. And the better man.

I don't know if I agree with any of this (the opening line strikes me as a banal truism) but the part that really rankles is the notion that Frazier was "the better man." For those who don't know, Muhammad Ali, in the lead up to his first fight with Frazier and I believe even the follow-ups, engaged in some of the worst intra-black racist rhetoric probably ever witnessed in modern sports. 

The old clips--where Ali berates Frazier as a "gorilla"--recalls the sort of thing which all of us (black people) experienced on bus-stops and playgrounds, but was magnified by the stage, the camera, and the fact that it was grown men. None of Ali's taunts are particularly original, but they're laced with a "blacker than thou" nationalism that's really disturbing.

And yet Ali went down in memory as symbol of courage--in and out of the ring--as well to riches and fame. Frazier--the son of sharecroppers--ended up living above his gym in Philadelphia. To make matter worse, it was Frazier who defended Ali and gave him money after he was stripped of his title for resisting the draft. In recent years there's been a blowback of revisionism highlighting Ali's behavior toward Frazier. It's tended to ignore Frazier's own behavior in regard to Ali's Parkinson's Disease, or to justify it by highlighting Ali as the original villain.

I think complicating the portrait of Ali has been good essential work. But I think that Dave Anderson's sense that Frazier was actually "the better fighter" and  "the better man" shows what happens when correctives to our morality plays, themselves, become morality plays themselves.
You can start a fairly nasty debate over who was the better fighter. The acolytes of Ali have the record--two out of three. The acolytes of Frazier have "If"--"If" Eddie Futch hadn't stopped the fight. Still, I concede that an argument is there to be made. But when you start talking about who was the "better man" I think you're into a business beyond athletics. Frazier and Ali have always been battle-ground for the boomers. It's a little sad to see this play out after a man has died. 

I also think there's this sense that Ali was rather magical, for his critics, in the worst sense. He wasn't supposed to beat Liston--and his critics will note that he wouldn't have, if Angelo Dundee hadn't forced him to. There's still some sense that he defeated Liston, in the second fight, by shadowy means. And he certainly wasn't supposed to beat Foreman. He did so in the most shocking way--not by beating him to a pulp, or superior hand-speed--but by some voodoo called the "Rope-A-Dope." In When We Were Kings, George Plimpton actually jokingly attributes Ali's victory to a succubus. (Video below. There's a moment at about 4:30 where you see Plimpton and Mailer, mouths agape as Foreman goes down, that symbolizes what I mean.)

I don't enough about boxing to explain the begrudging admiration for Ali among some boxing writers. But I know that when I see people explaining away a series of events with "Ifs" that they're generally on shaking ground. 

"Ifs" defeated the Confederates at Shiloh.

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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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