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From The Scrapbook

Nov 21, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 10 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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That was not the way Joe Frazier saw it, and to the end of his life, he was mystified by his fate in the popular culture. Frazier, a poor boy from rural South Carolina whose first job was holding nails for his one-armed father to hammer, was regarded with disdain by sportswriters and wannabe pugilists​—​Norman Mailer, Pete Hamill, Jack Newfield​—​who swooned at the sight of Muhammad Ali. If you visited the Frazier training camp you would find it was populated almost exclusively by working-class African Americans; drop by Ali’s and you might bump into Woody Allen.

To be sure, it’s a puzzlement. If any other modern boxer had counted among his weapons the habit of hurling racial taunts at opponents​—​complicated, in this instance, by Frazier’s dark complexion and Ali’s light one​—​he would rightly have been cast into oblivion. But Ali’s behavior, ranging from draft-dodging to membership in the Nation of Islam, seems to have earned him a permanent niche in the national pantheon. In 1998 the editor of the New Yorker, David Remnick, published a biography​—​King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero​—​which remains the last word in sycophancy. 

Frazier was embittered by the curious standards that made him the villain against the celebrity favorite, Ali. But he was also somebody who had risen from the humblest origins to considerable wealth and prominence, and kept a workmanlike attitude toward boxing and life in his Philadelphia retirement. He may have fallen short in the estimation of the Woody-Allen types, but was well aware of how little that counted for.

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