The news of former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier’s battle with terminal liver cancer hit me like an illegal punch to the kidney. Next to Muhammad Ali (whom I like for reasons other than boxing), Frazier was one of my favorite boxers of all time. Like many boxing fans I held on hope that the champ would beat this opponent. After all, Frazier had beaten a lot of tough opponents both in and out of the ring during his lifetime.
As a child, Joe survived the perils wrought by poverty in rural Beaufort, North Carolina. He survived being chased by a 300-pound ornery hog that resulted in him falling down and seriously damaging his left arm. Unfortunately his parents didn’t have the money to afford a doctor to reset his arm so they did the best they could to treat it. His arm eventually healed but the result was that Joe was never able to straighten it fully. Making the best of a bad situation Frazier used that bow in his arm to create the devastating left hook that left many opponents — 27 to be exact — who weren’t mindful of it flat on the mat.
When it came to facing his opponents in the square circle, the 5-foot 11 1/2-inch Frazier stood tall as any. He also did the same thing when it came to standing up for his friend and fellow boxer Ali. When Ali was stripped of his title and his boxing license for refusing to enter the draft, Frazier (who was next in line for the title) boycotted the World Boxing Association’s elimination tournament out of solidarity. Frazier also quietly gave Ali money to support himself and his family during these lean times. Frazier never brought it up to him even when Ali said all kinds of mean-spirited things about him and his distinct African features during the infamous “Thrilla in Manila” bout. Through it all Joe endured the insults and taunts. Like the true sportsman he was, Frazier remained calm and dignified. However, he was human and acknowledged that Ali’s taunts hurt him and he harbored bitterness toward Ali for years to come. He later forgave him.
As a manchild coming of age in McComb, Mississippi, I know all too well the pain and hurt that life and people, even those who are the closest to you, can hurl at you. Joe Frazier, by his exemplary example as a sportsman, taught me how to cope with it. And for that I will be forever grateful.
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