Joe Frazier: Deep As Cotton Fields and the Blues
Frazier's left hook swung from a place few could see coming
The left hook is malice made into a thing of beauty. Boxing lore will tell you that the left hook has dashed more aspirations, left more men arrayed on the canvas like crime scene photographs than any other punch in the inventory. Throw it as the punctuation on a jab-cross-hook combination and it is surreptitious, it crashes in from just outside the peripheral vision. The gifted can double up on it, take the hook downstairs to tenderize the rib cage and then bring it up to the temple where it makes men fall out like they’ve been touched by the Holy Ghost. A few can throw it at the beginning of a sequence and it’s like opening a conversation by telling a man you slept with his wife but only after you slapped his grandmother. Master it and you are a fighter; without it, you’re just someone throwing punches.
Joe Frazier was a fighter. There are few in the history who expressed the left hook as fluently as he and fewer still who deployed it with the devastating consequences he did. There was little poetry in Frazier’s approach to the craft; his style was a catalogue of tics, glove-to-forehead, shoulder-hunch-and-duck jerks, all as redundant as a blues verse. He fought like a car with a bad transmission: moving in one direction only. But inside that awkward motion was a mastery of technique that few could appreciate unless they’d tried actually defending against it. The novice believes that the hook is thrown from the shoulder, but Frazier knew its origins lie way further south -- that it begins with a pivot in the left foot, the ill intent moving north, picking up torque in the hip and then finally expressing itself through the shoulder, the arm, the fist. The truth is that Frazier more than any boxer other than Floyd Patterson laid down the principles that the young Mike Tyson mined and remixed.
When Frazier and Muhammad Ali met for their first bout in 1971, nearly four years after Ali had been stripped of the title, the country boy shocked the former champion, absorbing his best and bobbing his way in to deliver a bulk shipment of left hands. In the 14th round one of those hooks found its mark and Ali found himself on the canvas. When doubters shrugged off Ali’s loss as the product of too much time away from the ring they overlooked the fact that he had always been vulnerable to left hands.
Years earlier Ali had been floored by a left from Henry Cooper, a British no-name best known for his capacity to bleed during a fight. Frazier fought in a relentless march of forward motion. Ali relished punishing his opponents while moving in reverse and earned his living lashing blinding jabs at his opponents. Frazier hardly ever threw the jab, preferring to introduce himself by way of the hook. In meeting Frazier, Ali had stepped into a ring with a man whose strengths perfectly aligned with his own weaknesses and defined what became their epic rivalry.
This went beyond boxing. Black people loved the charmed harlequin Muhammad Ali, but the truth is Frazier’s life contained our metaphors. Born to sharecroppers, Frazier’s pedigree included chopping cotton in South Carolina fields and brewing corn liquor. He came north to Philadelphia with the black tides of the Great Migration. Observers thought there was something of the blues in Frazier’s style, as if he had distilled that element of the Black south down into his personal rhythms inside the ring.
It was Frazier’s lot to bear the contempt of the public for the way Ali initially lost his title – stripped of it by the government for refusing induction into the Army in 1967. Ali took to referring to himself as “the People’s Champ,” implicitly casting Frazier as the man of the Establishment -- Uncle Tom with a more talented left hand.
Black folk indulged Ali as he mined the worst of our collective self for slings to hurl at Frazier. Thus a man who sharpened his rhetorical skill trading lines with Malcolm X and Don King used his verbal gifts to do to Frazier precisely what he’d done to every other fighter since Sonny Liston – reduce them to the foil in his comedic routine. Even at the outset his nemesis got top billing – people referred to their initial fight as Ali-Frazier instead Frazier-Ali, with the reigning champion’s name listed first. Ali was selling the fight but Frazier, the dark-skinned, soft spoken, pork-eating Southern boy understood that there were acres of hurt in our history, far too many wounds not yet healed to grant Ali amnesty and call it all showmanship.
In thinking of him solely in association with Ali we forget far more than we remember about Smokin’ Joe, like the fact that long before a hyphen handcuffed his name to that of his greatest nemesis, he won the heavyweight Olympic medal in the 1964 Tokyo games. Or that he gave Ali money to keep him afloat during the years when the U.S. government had stripped his boxing license. Or that he buzz-sawed through the heavyweight division in the years following his Olympic medal, all but unstoppable until he ran into a force of nature named George Foreman in Jamaica.
The ghosts of his loss to Ali in their third fight in Manila stayed with Frazier for decades. The indelible image of trainer Eddie Futch waving off the referee and stopping the fight in the 14th round was one that Frazier seemed never quite able to exorcise from his mind. Yet yesterday as Joe Frazier fought his final rounds against liver cancer, a challenger more wily and implacable than any he encountered in the ring, another image occurred to me. It is of the young Frazier, all sinew and bad intentions, crouched low, the left hand coming from a place as deep as the cotton fields and as ancient as the blues.