How Smokin' Joe Frazier fought unfair 'Uncle Tom' slurs

OPINION - The lingering after effect of being called 'Uncle Tom,' 'white people's champion,' 'ignorant,' 'gorilla,' and 'ugly' by Ali were more damaging than any single punch thrown...

Former heavyweight boxing champion, Joe Frazier died last night of liver cancer. The 67-year-old prizefighter, known as “Smokin’ Joe,” suffered his fatal defeat, while under the care of a Philadelphia hospice.

Frazier, who also was diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure, dealt with his health issues just as he did against every opponent that he faced inside the ring, he courageously fought until the final bell.

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Although Frazier compiled an impressive career record of 32 wins, 27 by knockout, and only 4 losses, he found himself shadow boxing in the silhouette of his nemesis, the much more celebrated Muhammad Ali. Frazier’s hard-nosed humility and blue collared image was eclipsed by Ali’s flair, personality, style, and color making Muhammad the much more popular and prolific champion of the two.

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Frazier and Ali would face each other three times during their careers with Ali winning two, but Joe beating Muhammad at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971 in a bout billed as the “Fight of the Century” and handing Ali his first professional defeat. During the 15th round of that classic bout, Frazier would land his signature, devastating left hook, which would send Ali crashing to the canvas. Ali would manage to get up, but lose a unanimous decision to Frazier.

Muhammad Ali said in a statement, “The world has lost a great champion. I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration. My sympathy goes out to his family and loved ones.”

Although those are some kind words coming from Ali, Frazier bitterly recalled a time, when the words from Muhammad’s tongue didn’t “float like a butterfly, but stung like a venomous bee.” The lingering after effect of being called “Uncle Tom,” “white people’s champion,” “ignorant,” “gorilla,” and “ugly” by Ali were more damaging than any single punch thrown in the combined 41 rounds of their epic trilogy.

During the interview in which Ali called Frazier an “Uncle Tom,” he told the British reporter, “He’s the other type of Negro, he’s not like me. There are two types of slaves. Frazier’s worse than you to me…. One day he might be like me, but for now he works for the enemy.”

Frazier was funded by a group of white business investors called the Cloverlay, while Ali was backed by the Nation of Islam. He also felt that Frazier was the “white people’s champion” after awarding Joe with the title vacated by Ali because of his refusal to support the Vietnam War and induction into the U.S. Army due to his religious beliefs.

This “Uncle Tom” moniker was quite ironic given Frazier’s humble beginnings as a son of a sharecropper in Beaufort, South Carolina, who relocated to Philadelphia because of the extreme racism that he experienced in the south.
While promoting their epic third fight, titled the “Thrilla in Manila,” Ali even used a visual prop to degrade Frazier as he pulled out a rubber toy gorilla and began pounding it repeatedly. Ali would verbally taunt, “It will be a thrilla when I get the gorilla in Manila.” Ali also pushed his nose flat to resemble that of a monkey’s and intentionally spoke in an inarticulate manner to further mock Frazier. A routine which Frazier contends caused his kids to get teased at school and made them come home crying.

The two not only fought in the ring, but also in a TV studio. While making an appearance on ABC’s Wide World of Sports with Howard Cosell in 1974, Frazier and Ali engaged in a wrestling match, after Muhammad called Joe, “ignorant.” An angered Frazier would rise out of his seat to get into the face of Ali.

The hate and hostility that Frazier would develop for Ali would mount as Joe felt that he only tried to help Muhammad during his legal bouts, who returned the favors with insults and disrespect. It would be Frazier, who would petition President Nixon in an attempt to overturn the court’s decision to reinstate Ali’s boxing license and declined to participate in a WBA tournament because of their decision to strip Muhammad of the title. When Ali became financially strapped, due to his inability to make a living at the time, he also received cash handouts from Frazier as well.

Over the years, Frazier would continually be ignored by commercial recognition, while witnessing Ali achieve such accolades as Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Century.” Although both men won Olympic gold medals, it would be Ali selected to light the Olympic torch in the 1996 Atlanta games.

Frazier, who unlike counterparts, Ali and George Foreman (whom Frazier also fought twice), wasn’t portrayed by Will Smith in a biographical film nor has a cooking grill named after him, but will always be remembered. Frazier’s manager, Leslie Wolff said, “We must make sure his legacy stays alive.” Although the appreciation of Frazier may not be measured in press clippings, popularity polls, and by endorsement dollars, but the fact that some fans even offered to donate a liver in an attempt to save his life, speaks volumes in terms of the impact on the lives that Smokin’ Joe has touched.

In 1982, during my child actor days, I appeared as a boxer on a NBC Young People’s Special titled, Brother Tough, which starred Joe Frazier and John Amos. I had the pleasure of appearing in a few scenes with Frazier, got my hands wrapped by him, and even received private tutoring from Joe on how to hit the heavy bag.

To this day, I haven’t met a more generous and approachable pro athlete. Although only 12 years old at the time, by the respect that Frazier received from others on the production set and fans, who eagerly wanted to meet him, I knew that I was in the presence of a legendary sports figure.

My mother even asked Frazier for an autograph for my father, which he gladly signed and joked, “Did he ever win any money betting on me?” It wasn’t until many years later, obviously influenced by my experience with Smokin’ Joe that I would become the boxing enthusiast that I am today.