Pound-for-pound, Joe Frazier was one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time but he is often cast as being merely a supporting player in the saga of Muhammad Ali. Frazier was the first boxer to defeat Ali in the ring, in the famous Fight of the Century. Frazier and Ali would fight two more times. Their first rematch resulted in an Ali victory while their third fight, the legendary Thrilla in Manila, is widely considered to have been a draw, even if Ali was declared the winner.
Even after both fighters retired from fighting professional, Frazier continued to be associated with Ali. When Ali was stricken by Parkinson’s and was venerated by not only most sports historians but also by many of his former opponents, Frazier continued to hold a grudge over the way that Ali had taunted him before their fights. While the rest of the world watched a clearly infirm Ali light the Olympic Flame in 1996, Frazier was quoted as saying that he would have pushed Ali into the fire.
It’s easy to be critical of Frazier and to say that he should have followed George Foreman’s example and made peace with Ali. However, try looking at it from Frazier’s point of view. Smokin’ Joe Frazier was born into poverty and grew in the Jim Crow-era South. (Kram illustrates the world in which Frazier grew up by telling the story of George Stinney, a 14 year-old African-American who was executed in South Carolina in 1944. Stinney was accused of murdering two white girls, a crime for which he was probably innocent. Because he was so small, he had to sit on a bible in order to properly fit into the electric chair.) Frazier left home for Philadelphia when he was 15 and, while working as series of dead-end jobs to support himself, he established himself as one of the best boxers in the country. While Frazier was never as political as Ali, he still spoke out against Ali being banned from boxing. And yet, after years of working hard and proving his talent, Frazier suddenly found himself being described as being the “white man’s champion” and as being a “gorilla.” What is often forgotten and overlooked today is that Ali could be mean-spirited in his taunting. While other boxers forgave Ali (or at least claimed to), Frazier stubbornly refused and, ironically, found himself cast even more in Ali’s shadow as a result.
Smokin’ Joe: The Life of Joe Frazier lifts Frazier out of that shadow and finally gives him the credit that he deserved. Mark Kram, Jr. knew Frazier (as did his father, the sportswriter Mark Kram) and his biography is full of the type of personal details that can only come from firsthand experience. The Frazier who emerges in Smokin’ Joe was a complicated man, a religious man who loved his family but struggled to stay faithful and a fighter who could be honorable in the ring and out but who could still never make peace with his best-known opponent. Smokin’ Joe makes the case that Frazier deserves to be known for more than just his rivalry with Muhammad Ali while also showing why the two fighters will always remain connected in the popular imagination.