Joe Frazier (AP Photo/File)
The first African-American man to address the South Carolina state legislature after the Civil War wasn’t Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. Du Bois or Dr. Martin Luther King. It was heavyweight boxing champion “Smokin’ ” Joe Frazier, who died this week at the age of 67. Frazier had just emerged victorious from his epic 1971 encounter against Muhammad Ali, in a fight that was cast as a culture war between the “draft dodger” Ali and the “establishment hero” Joe Frazier. If you were against the war in Vietnam, you rooted yourself hoarse for Ali. If you wanted the hippies, freaks and Black Power disciples humbled, you wanted Smokin’ Joe.
In the wake of Frazier’s death, many have written that he didn’t deserve this tag: that he was labeled unfairly as a “sellout” by Ali and suffered for it. It is certainly true that Ali and Frazier were friends before their conflicts consumed Frazier with fury. It’s also true that when Ali was forced into exile for resisting the draft, it was Joe Frazier who gave Ali money when many others turned their backs on “The Greatest.”
Ali said to Frazier, “You just keep whupping those guys in the ring, and I’ll keep fighting Uncle Sam and one day we’ll make a lot of money together.”
But by 1971, both men were playing their roles. Ali taunted Frazier for being an Uncle Tom. Frazier also, which is less remembered, taunted Ali for being against the war. He said that because he loved America, he’d proudly fight in Vietnam. He also repeatedly insulted Ali by calling him by his birthname, “Clay”
And then, after he whipped Ali in the “fight of the century,” Joe Frazier accepted that invitation to speak at the South Carolina legislature: a conquering hero.
One of thirteen children and born in abject poverty in Beaufort, South Carolina, it’s certainly understandable why he would accept the historic invitation. But that doesn’t make it any less of a full embrace of his role as the “good one” in the Ali-Frazier melodrama.
Speaking in a room with a Confederate flag backdrop in front of a chamber with only three black representatives among its 170 elected officials, Frazier’s message was gentle. He told jokes to great laughter about growing up in Beaufort and saying, “Yes, bawse” and “No, bawse” no matter the question.