I have never been much of a gambler. I wager on the NCAA brackets every March, and I buy a lottery ticket when the jackpot crests above the $200 million high water mark. Otherwise, I have a healthy fear of the odds ever being in my favor. I would go so far as to say that if I bet on one side, for one team, the odds of the opposite outcome are increased proportionally to the dollar value I invest. Such is my lot. That seems like a lot of pessimism for a guy who won the first sports bet he can remember some 40 years ago.
I picked Joe Frazier over Muhammad Ali in 1971’s Fight of the Century.
I was in the 3rd grade that year, and passions were high for the bout. Being 3rd graders, we all had strong positions on the fight, but in retrospect, I am certain that these entrenched positions were inherited from our fathers, uncles or older brothers. We naturally wanted whomever they wanted to win. In the 3rd grade, our knowledge of the heavyweight boxing division was limited, to say the least. To us, “the sweet science” meant nothing more than the study of Halloween candy. All we knew was that everyone was talking about the fight, and I needed to take a stand.
Ali or Frazier. Choose. There was no middle ground for boys hoping to one day become men.
I had no idea about all of the racial overtones surrounding the match up. I didn’t know that Ali had once been Cassius Clay and avoided the draft as a conscientious objector. I knew that it was a big event, though, and I wanted to be a part of the action. I was too young to go to the Park Theater and watch the closed circuit showing on the big screen. I had to settle for a little gambling to provide some juice. I can’t remember if I bet money, a punch in the arm, or just bragging rights the next day. For some reason that I can no longer recall, I wanted Frazier. Could it be because we had the same first name? I don’t know. All I know is that I was all in for Smokin’ Joe.
I listened to the fight on the radio that night, late into the night. I am not sure if I lasted until the end of the 15th round to hear the decision as it happened, but the next morning, I went to school ready to collect. Frazier had won, so by extension, I had won, too.
Frazier beat Ali, and my man was heavyweight champion of the world.
There were to be 2 more battles between these two heavyweights, including the Thrilla in Manila, but that first fight in Madison Square Garden was the greatest, at least for me. Thanks to all those devastating body punches, I had won my first bet.
Ali went on to be the bigger star. He was must-watch TV with Howard Cosell on Wide World of Sports. His bout against George Foreman in Zaire was epic. Who doesn’t talk to this day about Ali’s Rope-A-Dope strategy that worked to perfection in the Rumble in the Jungle? That man could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, and if you asked him, he would tell you that he was beautiful, too.
Frazier did not carry the same profile as Ali, and his career did not follow the same arc, but in the days before ESPN, he was a legend nonetheless. His horrible showing during the swim competition of ABC TV’s The Superstars did not dull his star for me. He was still the man who gave Ali his first defeat in the ring.
Ali became a global icon, and Joe Frazier became that other boxer. Ali was the lightning, but Frazier was the thunder. While Ali was high class, Frazier was working class. Ali was a champion, but Frazier was a hero, a man who made the most of the gifts God gave him. Ali was a loud promoter and Frazier was quiet and humble undercard. Frazier did his talking inside the ropes with his tenacity and relentless attacks to the body. That guy could hit. He epitomized the American spirit of working hard and getting ahead. He was a good guy, who sometimes finished first.
Frazier is gone now, and Ali is still with us, albeit with a lower profile and more humility and humanity. Maybe he’s becoming more like Joe. I think it is safe to say, that without Joe Frazier, there would be no Muhammad Ali. Frazier made Ali, and that may be his greatest legacy. For that, we sports fans should always be grateful.
RIP the Pride of Philadelphia, Smokin’ Joe Frazier. He won a bet for me.