Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Sticks and Stones: A Tribute to Joe Frazier



          Once, a long time ago, Joe Frazier and I sat crammed on a hotel stage filled with heavyweights, both literally and pound-for-pound, posing behind large tables and a podium for a boxing awards dinner. These men fought for championship titles in front of thousands, at a time when tv sets were all tuned to fights at the same time. Our chairs faced an attentive crowd of mostly men, as starry-eyed waiters placed plates of steak in front of us and fans lined up hoping for an autograph and a handshake. Not from me, I might add.
          As the only one on the dais wearing my nervousness at speaking in public like a crown, I patted my underarms with paper towels in the ladies room before pinning a colorful necklace of buttons to the waist of my dress.
          Joe Frazier and I crossed paths many times over the years, at boxing matches and at dinners, and I trekked down to north Philadelphia to interview him at his gym for my book, The Prizefighters. A man of great pride and sensitivity raised in the segregation of South Carolina, his eyes still looked bewildered when he described how Muhammad Ali had treated him. 
          "His words hurt me, me and my family," Frazier said. "He called me a gorilla, the white man's champion, telling me that I was stupid. Why did he have to say this?
          Vietnam, it was not my place. I'm not about war, I'm not a politician. I'm a world champion. My job is boxing."
          His daughter, Jacqui, was 13 at the time of the 1975 Thrilla in Manila.
          "People went for what Ali was saying about my father. They thought my father was ignorant," she recalled. "My father is a very loyal person. He didn't say anything. All he could do was focus on fighting. He was completely shocked and betrayed, and he had to go through it publicly." 
          Small for a heavyweight and with a devastating left hook, Ali would not have been Ali without Frazier. With Howard Cosell as a sidekick, they came along at a historic time in this country for legendary fights of the centuries.
          At the boxing awards dinner, men on the dais called for an intermission after resting their knives and forks, and rose from their seats. I rose, too, and exhaled. My belt of buttons exploded, with a kaleidoscope of brightly colored plastic buttons showering the carpeting.
          “Oh, no!” I cried out.
          On my hands and knees, I crawled under chairs and tables to collect them in a dinner napkin.
          “Got some for you,” a voice called out.
          I looked over. 
          There was Joe Frazier, the heavyweight champion of the world, kneeling down and picking up buttons, and holding them in his fists.

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