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Ali-Frazier I: Meanings Beyond The Messages

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Boxers live out the marshal creeds of their truths and lies, under the blinding limelight, at the knife edge of death’s tragic enfolding, without recourse martyrdom or public restitutions for the exacting sum-totals of their entropic endeavoring.  Champions in the boxing ring defy the odds and their own mortality. And, championship boxing is the supreme court of trial without mercy. With hard currency and showbiz sprinkled on top.

Ali-Frazier fighting. At LAST! One by rite of linage and custom, the ex-world heavyweight champion: Ali. And one the emergent dominate, belted, enforcer at heavyweight: Frazier. Both men, undefeated, as a bonus contradiction. The fight of kings, with religion as subtext, would make for a true global struggle session. For one of the first times in history, EVERYONE was a potential consumer of a sporting combat closed-circuit TV program, the crucible of monarchs, in real time, live, and in color! 

With spring of 1971 in the offing, Joe Frazier, undefeated world heavyweight champion, would finally get his change to fight the legend of Muhammad Ali. And the man himself – who promised to be the king, returning to his rightful domain. Via one rehearsed boast after another. To torrents of attendant laugher. With Joe, ever so slightly backgrounded, backlite, smiling, simmering, enrage.

Promise was to meet expectation; resolution tethered by hope, for the final determination of justice being fought for, defended and won. No matter the ultimate winner? So much, so very much, in American and rest of the global SEEMED to be part of the unified field theory of this one boxing match.

Youth and racial culture wars. Corporate and governmental influence becoming BIG TECH entanglement. 1st WORLD vs. The Rest of the WORLD. The fate and fiction of MEGA-finance = Class Conflict. 1971 MODERNISM end-times AND POST-MODERNISM dawning. Seemingly, the clash of heavyweight boxing champions was able to be marketed and sold to consuming eyes as a battle of a global-order issue in a sporting microcosm. And that was the fight’s selling point fiction. 

Most all of which was partly true and substantially irrelative back story – filler, fodder.  To sell tickets. Mostly to people who would never otherwise dream of attending or watching the sweet science. Except for being part of history, in the form of a VOUGE cultural happening. Fashion meeting slaughterhouse. For unprecedented ‘one-nighter’ entertainment profiteering, all is fair in love and marketing. The summation of sporting business as Hollywood-like spectacle, making New York the world’s capital reserve, the movers and shakers an audience of co-conspirators to manufactured wonderment! 

Promoters Jerry Perenchio – back rolled by Jack Kent Cooke’s millions – stage managed the “Battle of the Century”, a.k.a., “The Fight”, with his long-learned Tinseltown impresario’s high tech, media saturating blitzkrieg perfectly according with the fight people longed for. Except for those of alternate conscientiousness. Many poverty advocates, feminist groups and some within broad-based civic and federal agency on urban renewal, held press conference in the weeks leading up to the fight. Their collective message? Paying boxer’s 2.5 million dollars – each – was almost criminal; the symbol of faltering times. Of unwarranted waste, a colossal misapplication of riches, typical of America and its eroding, anti-humane values. That signalling was drowned-out by the hype and dynamism pop culture makes of itself and all it absorbs. And nothing – in 1971 – was more emblematic of pop culture at its endpoint that Ali-Frazier.  

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“Ali is destined to be the greatest ever in boxing history. He simply can’t lose.” Angelo Dundee, Fri. Feb. 12, 1971

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Exiled by boxing commissions, courts, pubic sentiment, Ali had lectured, acted, defied his way into restitution. The times, and the collective response to his steadfastness, cultural objections and life-choices, had fit back into conditional social acceptance. He refused to change; but time’s inexorably moves forward, as if part of the fatalistic stars yielded to Ali’s public obstinance. Senator Leroy Johnson spearheaded the final political maneuverings which had granted a boxing licence to Ali, for a fight with Jerry Quarry in Atlanta, in the fall of 1970. The mouth that roared, idols to youth, anti-war activists, Muslims and much of the liberal literati were apoplectic with joy. Financier and speculators took robustly to work. The sport’s world revved into high gear: speculation was commerce, after all. 

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The commodity of a fighter is his/her talent, their leverage – popularity, collateral – a championship belt, unbridled promise or a track record of successful performance.

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Patriots and traditionalists, public moralists and some Christians, were divided on the merits of Ali exercise of self-expression and his version of segregated, black-only nationalism. Some people wanted sports – at least professional sports – to remain a preserve bounded by athleticism, in and for its own measuring. Some were indifferent to politics and the epic symbolism Ali-Frazier in a championship boxing ring would add up to. It was just a boxing match, much anticipated, probably a classic in the making; but, just a fight!

We can stop to ponder, with the removes of 50 years, a single flash point: Ali in his dressing room after stopping Jerry Quarry on cuts, in his “return to the ring” in Atlanta, October 26, 1970. The former heavyweight champion, still in his trunks and robe, was presented with a Martin Luther King Sports Medallion by Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Mrs. Coretta King, their faces alight with smiles. Everyone hugged. The Christian minister and civic rites leader, life long advocate for equality of the races, defender of integration, alongside the wife of Dr. Martin Luther King with Ali. It was 1971, politics, faith, reality and iconography were STILL capable of congruence and bonding for the COMMON good. Imagine that!

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He’s just a man… He’s always trying to fool people, and himself. I’ve got these (his fists) and truth waiting for him.” Joe Frazier – Eddie Futch, Interview, 2000. 

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Frazier was ‘densely’ himself and his occupation, the truth-machine of Larry Merchant’s telling, a Christian stoic of south, black, impoverished, American sporting manhood, within mid-20 century sporting and entertainment celebrity status. Joe the Olympic gold medalist. Joe the professional champion boxer. Joe the blues singer. Joe the father. Joe the lady’s man. Joe the Christian. Joe the biker. Joe the truth-teller. Frazier, even at his sporting prime, near the nexus of a first Pax Americana moment, connoted a singularity, a memetic man of the moment, a straight line of thought embodied. Indivisible. Uncompromising. Warmed-up. Ready to play his part in the struggle of survival. Darwinian fit.

For all of Frazier’s unaffected humanity, he was sort of Zen like. Secular unban man, content within his role as hunter. Gatherer of heraldry and heads. Just a rugged reality check for his opponents, family and fans. The optimization principle fully alive, ever about his chosen trade of domination and fame. For Frazier was famous for being meritorious, a fundamental expression of self. Complete and striving. Free in his notion and expression of unfinalized achievement. He lived and loved and fought this way. As best as he could. Winner taking all, of course. And for many sport’s fans, he was authentic. 

A regular Joe who happened to be extraordinary. The preordained rival to Ali’s confabulations, generational exceptionalism and mythic athleticism. 

Thus, Ali-Frazier: the rock and the roll, as blood ballet. 

Joe Frazier. Olympic champion and world heavyweight champion. Victor in Superfight 1, conqueror of the 29-year-old, undefeated, champ in exile, Muhammad Ali. And yet, perhaps, no athlete was better known the world over, instantaneously recognizable and all the while almost nothing about the man, the person was uncovered for analysis. Frazier personal didn’t seem to stick. Standout. Morph. Almost no one in the media landscape – in and around his prime-time – had something substantial to say about Frazier, past the immediacy of biographical reporting. Collectively, the press and independent writers seemed to run out of words, failing to detail Frazier’s most basic meaning. It was as if Frazier was a fundamental unit of meaning, the man, the fighter, and or more. Ail was the cosmos, Frazier, the quantum realm.

Yet, for all of the myth-making, Muhammad Ali wasn’t as much complex he was self-contradictory, in being a symbol of defiance to youth culture, nearing 30, a conscientious objector and pro boxer, a serially bad poet, magician of obvious whimsy, given to just off-camera flights of boredom and religious defensiveness; on camera shopping monologues of mind-gaming warfare and harmless vapidness.

Ali was nearer the poles, super-ordinant, randomizing at the point of the observation. Frazier frozen in place as Frazier. And yet, that were NOT totalizing opposites, exactly, but in the age of Pop Culture, the surface was the field, the medium the message, for the ruling media elites AND that mainlined-headlining-consumers: the average Dick and Jane. We all skate on the surface.

Yes, their fated oppositional nature was the root attraction, the fantasy of millions. In barber shops, in schoolyard, mall eateries, public parks, everywhere people chatted, people had an opinion. Who would win? Whose side were you on? How could Ali EVER be defeated? How could ANYONE stand up to Frazier? The questions came to define the citizen, the person, in America of the time, and the citizen of the world, by implication. A strong statement; but, in 1971, IT FELT LIKE IT!

And, even though opposites attack and often collide, the selling of the event, did trade in convenient stereotyping. In many ways Frazier and Ali were on the same road, with commonalities enjoining them. But that wasn’t sexy at the time nor of relative/financial value. From our 21Century perch, were can clearly see the ties that bound and were shared, by being who and what they were.

Both were solitary – Frazier congenial, warm, open up his defensiveness to interact, for a brief time, to those that assembled to view him. Ali smiling, tepid reading as warm, ever talk-performing in FRONT of his adoring tribes.

Both were Southerners – coming north by way of the world – International Olympic gold medal fame. Ali at light-heavyweight, 1960 – Rome, Italy; Frazier at heavyweight, 1964 – Tokyo, Japan.

Both transgressing to traverse – black man who conquered their occupations, their rivals, the strictures of their eras, cultures and histories: personal and racial, seeking out faith in themselves and their idea of immortality and spirituality. 

Both were the master of the other – morally and sportingly, reversing over time and circumstances. 

Both alpha males bearing unintended symbology and yet hungry for the riches they fought to earn, despite the legacy of their social upbringings, the hurdles before them, the endurance required of revisable celebrity.   

Both climbed the Everest within them and lived to tell their stories, while countless witness and strangers retold some version of Ali’s mythos, with Frazier’s life documentation only partly compiled.

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Who going to win? Training was complete. It’s all in there. The result’s already done.” – Yank Durham, March 6, 1971.

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Though, most of our story, was the legacy born – in analogue myth and mediated metaphor – of what happened the night of Mon. March 8, 1971 at Madison Square Garden, New York City and beyond. The run up to the actual fight being – almost – the equal of the actual fight of champions. And the fight was LEGEND.

THE FIGHT it self – for those interested and abled – must be watched. Ali-Frazier 1, like great work of art, dissolves in translation. The fight is a spectacle of competitive, brutalizing, captivating, edification on the subject/object dilemma, time stamped and timeless, a morality war of attrition AND a subtle indictment of elites preening, leering to lean ever into their moneyed celebrity and status, in being able to safely witness brutalizing greatness. 

But, man… what fighters they were, what champions. Rivals for a crown and the era, seeking the right to be what they had struggled for their entire lives to be, in foraging mind, body and skill. Meeting the rival of a life time that night of reckoning. And living out the fullest measure of capabilities. Win or lose.

AND YET, ALL THESE WORDS are not the actual fight or its ultimate meaning. You have to WATCH IT…   





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