by Philip Giarraffa
I was deeply saddened when I received news that boxing legend ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier passed away on the night of November 7th. Actually, it hit me like one of his left hooks, particularly after the Philadelphia fighter’s death received approximately 60 seconds of notoriety on a local news channel. I felt he deserved more then 60 seconds but in coming to know more about the man that was Joe Frazier, this brief, straightforward bulletin should not come as a surprise. In some ways that was how he would have wanted it. Although much of Frazier’s boxing career was before my time, I feel I owe him this (call it a tribute or just a plain thanks). You see, Joe Frazier’s death caused me to reflect a great deal – not on boxing but on education.
During my freshman year at Brooklyn College, I was enrolled in an English course similar to our SEEK English 120W. For our final project, we were asked to research a topic and write a persuasive essay. Persuasive as in Coke vs. Pepsi, Nike Air vs. Reebok Pumps, McDonalds vs. Burger King, etc… I had a difficult time finding a topic, as I felt all of my interests would present some form of bias causing my paper to appear somewhat one sided. It just so happened that in reading an edition of the Sunday New York Daily News I stumbled upon an article regarding a boxing match that ended in tragedy. The article was basically calling for the abolition of professional boxing and it thankfully had all the makings of a persuasive essay.
I was never overly fanatical about the sport of boxing (as I am with say the likes of the New York Jets) but I did follow the boxers of my generation including the likes of ‘The Golden Boy’ Oscar De La Hoya, Pernell ‘Sweet pea’ Whitaker, Roy Jones Jr., and yes (offering no apologies), Mike Tyson. However, research for my paper took me beyond my generation and this is where I was truly introduced to Joe Frazier. I always knew of Frazier from that quick 1976 cameo in the movie Rocky, where before the climatic fight, Frazier was being warmly received by the Philadelphia crowd while Apollo Creed was dancing around the ring screaming “you next Joe, you next Joe.” In peering through periodicals, books, and newspaper clippings of past boxing matches the name Joe Frazier appeared more than a cameo but it seldom stood alone nor could it ever be separated from one name, Muhammad Ali.
If Joe Frazier was depicted as the brutal exhibition that is boxing – always moving forward, never retreating, taking punishment as much as he dealt it, with a left hook that could move a tank; Muhammad Ali was the epitome of boxing as a sweet science – a chemical equation that was unmatched, graceful with his feet…and his words (no matter how disparaging), lightening fast, and very smart. They gave us 3 epic boxing matches beginning with 1971’s ‘Fight of the Century,’ where both fighters entered as undisputed champions. It divided a nation, spurred inter-racial tension, took the major ‘sporting event’ to another level, and as a bonus, left journalist/sportscaster Bryant Gumbel in tears. The second fight took place in January of 1974 with less extravagance but with equal unbending animosity. The boxing trilogy culminated with the 1975 ‘Thrilla in Manilla,’ which is recognized as one of the most brutal exhibitions in boxing history leaving both combatants to pick up remnants of their souls, which were scattered across the sweltering Filipino landscape.
The enmity between Ali and Frazier went beyond the ring and it remained well after their careers were over. And this is what left me wanting more even after my persuasive essay was completed. I wanted to know about these men outside of boxing, their upbringing, the things that triggered such an intense rivalry and the major historical events that played such an antagonizing role. It wasn’t until I read Mark Kram’s 2002 book ‘The Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier’ that I truly understood the fierce hatred behind one of history’s most storied rivalries. However, this historical account also introduced me to a different, volatile era where the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War divided a nation; where the influences of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam were embraced by some and feared by others; where the term blue-collar was seemingly applied only to the city of Philadelphia. And to think, it all started with an assignment for my English class.
As for my persuasive essay, Boxing: Sweet Science or Brutal Exhibition, I started the introductory paragraph with a quote from one of the boxers that took part in the tragic fight that initiated that article long ago in the Sunday Daily News. I never forgot those lines, which I felt forged the greatest introductory paragraph of my entire existence. I remember vowing to return to my essay someday so I could continue working on it. Why? It inspired me and I felt that the finished work could be something special! That is the fundamental purpose of education, isn’t it? Find an interest, make it a passion, and turn it into a career or hobby. I reread the Ghosts of Manila shortly after Joe Frazier’s death and again I found myself entirely enthralled with the principle characters. It took me 15 years and the death of Joe Frazier to return to my persuasive essay in thought alone. Unfortunately, my original essay no longer remains – gone with the likes of the floppy disk, microfiche and, MS DOS. Maybe this essay was to serve as my returning solace.
Philip Giarraffa is a Counselor at the Percy E. Sutton SEEK Program of Queens College
© December 2011, Philip Giarraffa for QCSEEK