Muhammad Ali's superlative boxing and verbal skills, along with his ability to touch people's hearts, lifted him to iconic status. But on one count — his relationship with Joe Frazier — Ali was anything but a hero.
Ali began as a product of his times. After the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a devastated country sought heroes. It first found them in the Beatles, with their legendary U.S. television performance just a couple of months after the assassination. Two weeks after that, a young Cassius Clay upset the scowling Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title. His victory surprised nearly everyone, but in retrospect Clay was younger, faster, taller and quicker than Liston.
The country was changing rapidly. Initially, the boisterous Clay, soon to be Muhammad Ali, was reviled by many (just like the Beatles). Ali's genius was that he realized quickly that the country needed heroes — and he fit the bill. He modeled his act on the flamboyant wrestler Gorgeous George, who knew that wrestling depends on heroes and villains, a concept that traces back to the ancient Greek tragedies, in which every protagonist required an antagonist.
Ali eventually became the hero, which meant that throughout his career he had to create villains. Outside the ring, a vindictive U.S. government made it easy for him by trying to imprison him for draft evasion and taking away his ability to earn a living while a legal battle ensued. Inside the ring, he knew to cast his opponents as villains — Liston, Ernie Terrell, George Foreman, Leon Spinks and Ken Norton. Only when a sympathetic Ali left the ring for good, with slurred speech and diminished faculties, were villains no longer required.
But during his boxing years, Ali treated one man worse than anyone else: Joe Frazier. The Frazier-Ali rivalry was one of the great sports rivalries of the 20th century — the boxing equivalent of Yankees-Red Sox, Cubs-Cardinals or Lakers-Celtics. And Ali treated the classic rivalry with contempt.
Frazier was the worst of Ali's bad guys, but Ali was the real villain. In three memorable fights, Ali callously referred to Frazier in appalling racial terms — specifically as a "gorilla" and an "Uncle Tom" — while portraying himself as the hero of the oppressed African-American. In Ali's narrative, Frazier was simply a tool of white America.
The reality was quite different. Frazier, one of 12 children, grew up in rural South Carolina, far poorer than Ali, and eventually settled in Philadelphia. Frazier was anything but a subservient Uncle Tom — he was a proud, decent working-class man. And when the government tried to freeze out Ali as part of its campaign to destroy him, Frazier came forward to help him.
Frazier was not the fighter Ali was — but he is unquestionably among the top heavyweights of all time. And although Frazier lost two of their three fights, he gave better than he got. It was after their third fight that Ali's slow physical deterioration first began to show.
Yet despite their long history, Ali never really reconciled with Frazier. Frazier, whose earnings paled next to Ali's, could never understand why the man he once assisted would mock and insult him so viciously, even if it was an act. When Frazier died, his obituaries portrayed him as little more than a foil for Ali.
Oscar Wilde once said, "Life imitates art far more than art imitates life." Sylvester Stallone made a fortune, won an Academy Award and garnered worldwide acclaim for his 1976 movie, "Rocky," the story of a working-class Philadelphia boxer. In the movie, Rocky Balboa trained by running up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and honed his punching skills on 400-pound sides of beef. With a devastating left hook, Rocky traveled from obscurity to an improbable heavyweight championship of the world. But Rocky Balboa was a fictional character; Joe Frazier really did all those things, and after his career was over, he remained loyal to Philadelphia.
When the time came for Philadelphia to erect a statue near the Art Museum as a tourist attraction, though, the statue was of the diminutive Stallone, who resides in Beverly Hills, Calif., and wouldn't have lasted one round with Frazier.
That statue should be of Joe Frazier, who became a hero through hard work and strong values. It might have been Frazier if he had not been unfairly demonized by Muhammad Ali. That will always remain Ali's most unfortunate legacy.
Cory Franklin is a Wilmette physician and author of "Cook County ICU: 30 Years of Unforgettable Patients and Odd Cases."