If you open the list of current World Champions on Wikipedia, you’ll find about 50 names, spread across 17 divisions, recognized by 4 major organizations and one magazine that’s the most honest in a liar’s game. There’s another half dozen minor organizations recognizing a variety of wanderers and unknowns. A person who truly follows boxing might recognize half – the rest of us are lucky to get 3.
The “alphabet soup” championship scene is one of the biggest cliches in sportswriting. It isn’t going away – legally, these organizations have the right to strip a champion for not facing their chosen challenger. And they will never agree on a duplicate Top Ten, creating an unmanageable scenario for unification.
It is more accurate to recognize that in the modern history of one on one combat sports there has never been a truly undisputed champion. Even when they hold the undisputed championship, there is a man who claims they are most deserving. If they are more entertaining than the man with the belt, a belt will be created. You would think one on one fighting would be the ultimate no controversy no excuses scenario, but anyone with a passing interest in the fight game knows this is laughably far from the truth of the situation.
There are times when the athletes transcend the nature of the game though. Today, we have nearly every fighter of note under contract to Dana White and UFC – creating nearly unanimously recognized champions in most divisions.
In the 1970s- a time those of us who enjoy boxing feel intense nostalgia for despite not breathing one breath in the decade – you had the heavyweights.
In another world, Joe Frazier might be the most famous man in boxing. He was a true underdog story – hitting frozen cows before Rocky, building his own equipment, raising himself from the segregated south to Philadelphia, travelling to the Olympics, receiving a shot at the medal by virtue of an injury to the man he was there to spar with, winning the gold and moving on to take the World Heavyweight Championship. He was dominant. He was memorable.
Today, in our world, not an obituary was, can, or should be written without spending almost as much time talking about Muhammad Ali.
Ali has surpassed Ruth as the sporting icon of America. Ruth was a fat man who ate hot dogs and drank and hit home runs in black and white films in a white league. Ali, clearly, represents something different. He deserves his spot in the American pantheon.
Yet – does Muhammad Ali, icon, exist without Joe Frazier?
If we’ve learned one thing from a weekend of disillusionment in the sporting world, it’s that individuals are not perfect and stories do not end the way they should have been written. I would like to say that Joe Frazier made Ali, and that without him, Ali is just another fighter. The truth is that Frazier is inextricably linked to Ali because Ali made Frazier into something more than a famous boxer – he made him into a true legend of sport. If a rising tide raises all boats, Ali was a tsunami who brought Foreman, Norton, Quarry, and – perhaps most of all – Frazier into the halls of mainstream celebrity.
I would also like to say that Frazier and Ali reconciled after he was unfairly maligned by The Greatest – but there seems to be precious little indication that actually happened. There’s anecdotes that Frazier was now “ok” with it, but nothing hard, nothing official, no tangible proof. I don’t know if he went to the grave bitter about how he was treated. I’d be hard pressed to blame him if he did.
I obviously did not know Joe Frazier and I am not a scholar of his life by any means. I am a fan of boxing, and MMA, and wrestling, and I do feel a sense of loss today.
Frazier was a less complicated man than Ali. He was not a genius, he was not ignorant, and he was not the fireball of personality Ali was. From all accounts, he was a hard working man that rode his above-average gifts to greatness through extreme dedication and focus.
He did the best he could outside boxing – from movie cameos to officiating the main event of Starrcade 1984 to beating up Barney Gumble.
He was a Philly fighter that inspired Rocky and received almost no credit – while Stallone got a statue.
He stood up for Ali when he was banned – and he was called an Uncle Tom.
He did not light an Olympic torch.