I’ve lost just about every fight I’ve ever been in. That includes fourth grade when Devin Collins cleaned my clock on the school playground. Or fifth grade, when a girl half my height climbed me like a cat up a Christmas tree and ripped out my hair by the bunch. Or Nigel Fields, who re-arranged my teeth in sixth grade while we were waiting for the school bus to take us home. He and I were both considered gifted and talented academically back then.
But among our fellow classmates, the money was on Nigel to knock me down, draw blood or at the very least make me cry. All I can remember from that bout was that I got a couple of licks in, but the whole business was beneath us. Truth be told, Nigel was okay.
It would be unfair to suggest that I was the victim of bullying. I had a big mouth back then, like my hero Muhammad Ali. Still do. And the law of the playground -- a law so inviolate that the nation’s forefathers never bothered to mention it in the Constitution -- is that when you say something ugly to somebody you’ve got to be able to back it up.
My mother, who loved all things showbiz, agreed with me about Ali. But my father preferred Joe Frazier. He, like many men of few words, appreciated Frazier as a fighter who preferred action to rhetoric. He was offended by Ali’s taunts of Frazier, Ali’s gleeful insults of a working man who was not as articulate as he. Let’s face it, what working man or boxer was ever as articulate as Ali?
I thought my old man was about as square as the buckle on a Pilgrim’s shoes. And the night in 1971 when Frazier knocked down Ali in Madison Square Garden, (even though Ali popped back up like a piece of toast), I cried with more sorrow than a child should ever know. When I went to bed that night, I remember feeling that the Earth itself had jolted, like a bike wheel jumping its chain.
But over the years, my view of the fight changed. And while my love for Ali remains complete and everlasting, I respect Joe Frazier for smokin’ him all those years ago. Ali had said some ugly things about Frazier before the fight to hawk the event, to warrant a massive purse for both men, to bring new fans to the sport. But like me at school, he couldn’t back it up. And unlike the playground, the ring at Madison Square Garden was perfectly situated for a score-settling fight.
It’s a matter of coincidence that so many sports heroes in the U.S. are called Joe. There’s no way to plan such a thing. Joe is just a common name. But perhaps a touch of the ordinary in a great athlete draws the average American to see his or her own potential in a Joe.
Joe Frazier in victory and Joe Frazier in defeat was more of an Everyman than the transcendant Ali could ever be. That’s because Frazier embodied the greater truth that we all learn at some point in our lives: words hurt worse than a punch. Frazier lost the war of words with Ali, but March 8, 1971 remains his for all time. He buttoned a lip that, I say with love, needed a button, a hook, toggles, laces AND a zipper.
Gwen Thompkins is a writer in New Orleans.