In Frazier’s life story, above all, there’s the disfiguring wound from Muhammad Ali’s verbal abuse. Torrentially, Ali slandered Joe as a “gorilla” and an “Uncle Tom.” Frazier fired back, labeling his hated adversary a “half-breed.” Ali was no “true brother,” said Frazier. “If we were twins in the belly of our mama, I’d reach over and strangle him.”
It’s as if their lives were hurtling through an obsidian void toward the final reckoning at the “Thrilla in Manila,” as if all the things that had happened before 1975 were mere retinal flashes: Ali’s surprise Liston victory; Joe’s defeat by the colossus, George Foreman; the volcanoes always fuming on the horizon: Bonavena, Chuvalo, Ellis, Norton, Quarry.
Manila would have been the greatest fight of all time were it a fight and not a cosmic event. (If the three Ali-Frazier contests complete a triptych, Kram recreates each panel with a summary of dazzling precision.) Ali’s hand was raised, but everyone who cares about such things knows there was no loser in the Philippines that sweltering day.
Unquestionably, Kram elevates trainer Eddie Futch, a tactical genius, to heroic stature, citing his “moral courage” before the last round in Manila. Futch had seen seven fighters die in the ring; Joe would not be number eight. When he determined Frazier had been fighting blind, his decision to concede happened in a flash. “Sit down, son,” he said, “It’s all over.” Then there was Joe, a pillar of nobility and sorrow. This was pathos, the real inexplicable thing brought forth from the caves of our psyches and nourished in the light. Recounting it today, a hush settles over the most unforgiving fan, just as it will for readers of “Smokin’ Joe.”
At once, Frazier’s stock soared across every hostile divide, although it’s unclear if he ever really understood that. Or maybe they were both losers, and Ali was right when he told Mark Kram Jr.’s father, one of the most sublime writers of his era, “We went to Manila as champions, Joe and me, and we came back as old men.”
To those who smirk at the claim that Futch saved Joe’s life, consider the fates of two professional boxers who died from ring injuries in July; their circumstances were not dissimilar to Frazier’s in Manila. Kram believes that Joe, in his last decade, suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, “a progressive degenerative disease found in people who have suffered recurring brain trauma.”
When does life not have a “disagreeable end”? Joe liked to party hard, blending his favorite liquors, which were pretty much all of them. The high-speed motorcycle crash that hobbled him seems inevitable. He suffered from diabetes and recurring blood pressure issues and died of liver cancer at age 67. A Destroyer of Worlds, he lived in the shadow of no man but himself.
Even without Ali, it’s an iconic American story, but America’s demand for reconciliation can be overpowering. The pressure on Ali and Frazier to unify after so much irreparable division, if tantalizing, was always too great, and it begs several questions: Why do we need them to have achieved peaceful accord? Why the longing for a Hollywood ending? And why do we burden their memory. Could it be we suspect that the deferral of our plural, democratic ideals may be ongoing, and we seek consolation at the expense of Ali and Frazier?
Yet, amazingly, Mark Kram Jr. leaves them as fallen warriors in their twilight, side by side on a couch, sparkling in their vulnerability, never disentangled, moving, even when they’re not. I haven’t come across this revelatory account of their penultimate meeting anywhere but “Smokin’ Joe,” and, until further notice, it will have to stand, gratifying as it is.
by Mark Kram Jr.
384 pages, $27.99