The Unbearable Heaviness of Being Joe Frazier
For all of his brilliance and class, Frazier could not compete with two facts: He lived in the early ’70s, and he wasn’t Ali
My grandmother learned about boxing so she could fit in at the pool hall where she worked. Years later, she ended up running the whole place.
She would tell me rapturous stories about summer nights, crowded rooms, and the Brown faces that would show up to the pool hall. My grandmother loved to talk about the sea of people that crowded the boosted big radio to listen to Joe Louis’ rematch with Billy Conn in 1946. Hipsters and factory workers would gather around her black-and-white TV to watch Sugar Ray Robinson’s physical artistry in the ’50s. Before she lost her pool hall, she was known to bring in those same workers, unemployed and broken, to listen or watch the fights on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
As a child, my weekends consisted of making sandwiches and drinks for my grandmother, grandfather, and great-aunts and -uncles. Their lives revolved around the pool hall my grandmother ran, and in that pool hall, they developed a working knowledge of every aspect of sports culture. Because of my grandmother’s fight nights, my family had a massive love of boxing. They loved Robinson, Louis, Willie Pep, Sugar Ray Leonard, Alexis Arguello, and Julio César Chávez the most. The fighter they hated the most? Muhammad Ali.
Oh, they respected Ali. They could tell you why he was outstanding and gave him respect as the greatest heavyweight ever to walk the face of the Earth. But they would not grant him any more than that because they believed he, and the generation he embodied, gave them absolutely nothing. My grandmother and aunts were not fans of the feminist movements nor the Black Panthers; their tongues were too sharp, their bullshit barometers too perceptive, to deal with the patriarchal dynamics of local chapters.
He didn’t make political statements, but his life was a near embodiment of the southern Black experience: hardworking, churchgoing, and evoking the decency of a prototypical southern gentleman with almost all of…