I remember listening on a green transistor radio to the Frazier/Ali fight back in the late winter of 1971. I was 12, and at the height of my interest in sports. My Yankees had done badly that summer (they’d finished fifth in their division). This is not the dynasty Yankees: this is the Yankees of Horace Clark and a third baseman (Jerry Kinney) who hit under 200 without power. This is a Yankee team whose best and most consistent player was Roy White, and who had two starting pitchers who swapped wives and houses (Kekich and Pederson). I loved them without hope–the way it should be.
Ali had been out of the loop for over two years. He was cocky. I’d heard an old man say something I didn’t understand: “Say what you want about that mother fucker…he ain’t no fuckin field nigger.”
Ali’s tune up fight had not looked sharp and, in my neighborhood, where many young men were in Nam, and three of them on my block were soon to be dead, rooting for Ali took a lot of guts. Ali also rubbed it in so deep on Joe Frazier that you had to feel bad, or mad, or just humiliated yourself. Frazier had an amazing left hook and a stolid, cut off the ring approach that seemed utterly hard hat. The hard hats were not the friends of the hippies that year and visa versa. This was the beginning of the schism in the democratic party, between depression based old union democrat and prosperity, lifestyle based choice culture leftism. Frazier was a patriot. Frazier was a no nonsense, soft spoken guy from Philly. Ali was the pretty boy, the darling of the new global left–the most famous figure in the world. It was hard to root for him, but even after two years off, it was even harder to believe he wouldn’t somehow out dance, out box, and out think Frazier and steal his title while humiliating the champ.. I think working people were beginning to feel humiliated enough. They didn’t understand the anti-americanism of the new left, especially since it seemed to be led by and comprised almost entirely of little privileged shits from the burbs. Those kids mocked us. They were not like us. They saw us as white trash. They looked bored and unfriendly and we had no idea they’d gotten that bored and unfriendly look from the Velvet Underground and posters of various hipsters and fashion models. I remember a man in the barber shop saying: “those long hairs got their nigger, and we got our’s. Their’s is just like them: a fuckin wise ass.”
I rooted for Joe Frazier because he had a terrific left (I’m left handed) and was a short guy as was my father. He cut off the ring. He took a punch to land one. He had trained hard and beaten a bunch of good fighters to get the title. In my heart, I knew the war was wrong, the word nigger was wrong, the whole feel of that time was somehow wrong. I was against the war, and as an 11 year old, I opened my mouth and got my ass beat. We were a strange mix of working class anger, and old leftist virtue. In my house, my mother swore if she ever heard us use the N word, she would leave us at the police station and give us up for adoption. We knew she meant it. It was a time of splits: racial splits, class splits, most importantly a split between an old immigrant unionism which was at both the top of its success and ready to take a nose dive with the first oil crisis, and the new left that would later spend most of its youth and middle age analyzing itself.
I rooted for Frazier because he was the underdog–the fighter for those working class guys who were in Nam. It never occurred to me that the guys in Nam were not against Ali. When Tom Daley came back after two tours of duty and missing three fingers he said: “Ali was right… I was a fucking sap.”
So on March 8th, 1971, on the same radio station as my Knicks (think it was WOR) the fight was broadcast. it was close, so close, and Frazier won. I was ecstatic..It was a year for underdogs. My Knicks were defending champs. For a moment, a year before my balls dropped, I was a happy kid. But I felt bad for Ali. The next day in the paper they showed his puffed up face. They never wrote Frazier was in the hospital even longer. Two black men had beat the shit out of each other. Given the warped mix of class, race, pro-war, anti-war sentiments, some whites still felt proud and almost teary eyed that their good, patriotic “nigger” had won.
That’s what some idiot yelled to my dad when he came up the street from the bus that left him off from the 3:30 to 12 shift. “Hey Rocky!” The guy yelled, “The good nigger won.” My dad flipped his cigarette and yelled back: “Ali… won?” “No… you dumb bastard, the good nigger.” “I thought you said the only good nigger was a dead nigger,” My dad rejoined. “Ah Rocky… ” the guy finished in disgust, “you’d fuck up a wet dream.” I was up late because my mom gave me permission. My father looked at me: “kid… don’t ever be like that dumb shit… A little late for you to be up.” I answered my father, “I wanted to see what you thought Dad.” He said,” A lot of idiots think they won a fight and they never spent even a half minute in the ring… Listen, I want to show you what it means to be in the ring… don’t tell your ma, ok?” My dad made me get into a boxer’s stance after going inside the house to get the egg timer. For three minutes he hit me–very lightly with jabs to my arms, countered all my punches, faked me out, made me winded so that, at the end of those three minutes, I thought I’d puke my guts up. He said, “that’s what you heard tonight kid, except no punches was pulled, and it went all them rounds.That’s the only part of this that ain’t bullshit. That’s just a taste… boxers are just poor dopes trying to make some scratch… black, white, they get themselves hurt for the green. this was a big pay day. All this horse shit about this or that …you know what’s wrong with this country?
“What’s that dad?”
“It ain’t the boxers or soldiers who’s brutal… it’s all these goddamned spectators…” He threw one more jab at my arm. “Come on, Let’s go in and have some pie… Ali is a great boxer. If he’d been a little more in shape, goodbye Frazier. Joe is a great fighter… he’s got heart…Ali is the better man, but not tonight. The rest of us, we best pray we don’t have to get into the ring with either of em. Come on… I’m beat to shit.”