Joe Frazier died late Monday at age 67 after a short battle with liver cancer, and nary a story will be written about the two-time heavyweight champion of the world that doesn’t include ample space for Muhammad Ali. It was Ali who overshadowed Frazier both in the ring and out. Ali was flashy, changing his name upon joining the Nation of Islam, courting Malcolm X, dodging the Vietnam War draft, and, yes, beating Frazier in two-of-three fights. And at a time of civil unrest, it was Ali who painted Frazier as a friend of the conservative elite, an Uncle Tom, a puppet of the White Man — a distinction that became a part of how Frazier would always be known:
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.”
It wasn’t just Ali. After Frazier beat The Champ in the Fight of the Century at Madison Square Garden in 1971, Boxing Illustrated posed a question to readers: “Is Joe Frazier a white champion in black skin?” By that time, Frazier had been alienated by much of America’s black community, seen by many exactly as Ali had painted him.
Joe Frazier, to be sure, wasn’t Muhammad Ali. But does that diminish Frazier’s accomplishments, either as an athlete or as the change agent he (perhaps unintentionally) was? It shouldn’t. Frazier’s career began when he fled the racism of the Jim Crow South, moved to Philadelphia, and learned to fight. Like Jesse Owens, Wilma Rudolph, and, incidentally, Ali before him, Frazier highlighted America’s racial injustice by winning a gold medal in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics while representing a country that didn’t represent him. A few years later, it was Frazier who lent money to Ali, who had been imprisoned and stripped of his title for dodging the Vietnam War draft. Frazier later petitioned President Richard Nixon to get Ali reinstated into boxing.
After his career, he started a charitable foundation and opened a Philadelphia gym to give troubled youth a place to go to ease their frustrations and learn to box, much as others had done for teens like Ali and Frazier years before. Well into his fifties, Frazier still fought charity bouts to raise money for troubled youth in communities across the country.
Plenty of black athletes, Ali included, used their platform to become outspoken activists for American racial injustice and inequality. Plenty of others, like Frazier, highlighted social injustice and inequality simply through their accomplishments, accolades, and acceptance by mainstream America. Perhaps none, however, was demonized by other black athletes quite the way Frazier was by Ali. Ali was flashy, bold and outspoken, and imprisoned for his beliefs, and his activism rightly endeared him to millions of people around the world both during his career and after.
“I don’t want to be no more than what I am,” Frazier once said. But while it may not be his enduring legacy — or, for all I know, the legacy he’d choose for himself — Smokin’ Joe Frazier played a positive role in the change of America’s racial norms during his lifetime. Just because he wasn’t Muhammad Ali shouldn’t diminish that.