Friday, November 11, 2011

When Styles Clash--or Come Together

Former world heavyweight boxing champion Smokin’ Joe Frazier died of liver cancer on November 7, 2011. He had a career professional record of 32-4-1.

Although I was only twelve years old at the time, I have very clear memories of the build-up to and the aftermath of the “Fight of the Century” between Muhammad Ali and him that was held in Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971.

I recall going to bed on March 8 hoping that Frazier would defeat Ali and upon waking up the next morning going straight to the kitchen where my father always listened to the morning news on the radio to find out the results. “Frazier won,” he said, and I was happy.

While I rooted for Frazier in that fight I really think that I rooted against Ali even more. I wasn’t alone; I can remember only one of my friends admitting openly that he wanted Ali to win.

I knew neither fighter personally, you are not surprised to learn, but I nonetheless had strong opinions about them.

Frazier struck me as a solid, quiet, hard-working, rational, determined man; he was the kind of man I admired and the kind of man I wanted to grow up to be. As a boxer, he was effective without being flashy.

Ali, I had concluded on the other hand, was an arrogant, brash, loud-mouthed, egotistical draft-dodger with a strange name and an exotic religion. As a boxer, he was both flashy and effective.

Frazier seemed to represent values and practices that were valued in my home and in my community while Ali seemed to represent values and practices that were not. So, it was simple and easy for me to conclude that Frazier was the good guy and that Ali was the bad guy—and I always pulled for the good guy.

When I saw the pictures of Frazier stalking away from Ali, who was sprawled on the canvas after being floored by the then-champion, I was thrilled to see that the loud-mouthed and arrogant one had been put in his place by the solid and low-key one.

My perspective has changed somewhat over the years. For instance, when it comes to Ali’s refusal to accept induction into the Army, I can, even if I don’t think I would have done the same thing, appreciate his willingness to pay a steep price for the sake of his convictions. Moreover, I admire Ali’s showmanship and the levity he brought to an otherwise brutal sport.

Besides, what really made their 1971 match-up and their two rematches so memorable was the clash of styles—Ali the dancer vs. Frazier the plodder, Ali the boxer vs. Frazier the puncher, Ali the manic vs. Frazier the stoic, and Ali the exotic vs. Frazier the down-to-earth. The drama of it all, not to mention the beauty and wonder of it all, was found exactly in the coming together of their differences in the dance of death that boxing is.

It is good to remember that had Ali not been Ali and had Frazier not been Frazier, then Ali vs. Frazier would not have been Ali vs. Frazier but just another boxing match in the footnotes of the sport’s history.

It is good to remember, too, that if everyone thought and acted the same when it comes to religion or politics or lifestyle or tastes, it would be a very dull and nondescript life in a very dull and nondescript world.

The differences between Frazier and Ali came together and produced something memorable in their battles in the ring.

Maybe we can learn to experience and to appreciate our differences and let them lead us into greater cooperation and creativity without resorting to the conflict that we members of the human race seem so prone to expect and even to seek.

No comments: