SMOKIN' JOE

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Former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier is usually  considered the B-side of the saga of his contemporary, Muhammad Ali.  Both men are gone now, Frazier having passed away in 2011 and Ali in  2016. Their trilogy of fights in the 1970s produced moments that will  long outlive the protagonists. 

Frazier  won the first fight; Ali the second two. In the years following their  retirement from the ring, Ali became an international icon, arguably the  biggest celebrity of his time. You could fill a library with the books  that have been written about him.

Frazier,  on the other hand, was respected but always overshadowed by Ali's  mega-fame. The books written about him could fill a good-sized  bookshelf, but not a library. However, a new biography called Smokin' Joe: The Life of Joe Frazier is a welcome addition to that bookshelf.

Ironically, the book's author, Mark Kram Jr., is the son of the late Mark Kram, who wrote the 2001 volume Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. The  elder Kram's book uplifted Frazier and denigrated Ali, chopping big  chunks from the latter's near-mythic image. Would the younger Kram use  his Frazier biography as an axe to finish the job?

As  it turns out, he does no such thing. Although Kram Jr. pulls no punches  in delineating Frazier's bitterness and hatred toward his foe, he also  reveals the extent of the wounds Ali inflicted with his taunts of  "gorilla" and "Uncle Tom," amid other opprobrium. Frazier had a right to  be angry.

In a different  world, in which Ali had never become a fighter and America had kept out  of Vietnam, Joe Frazier would have been revered as a working-class  warrior and a rags-to-riches hero. And even in the world in which Ali  and Vietnam existed, many people -- black and white alike -- did extol   Frazier. His lethal left hook and take-no-prisoners aggression made him a  popular box-office attraction.

But the voices of Ali's supporters were far louder, and that's what Joe heard. That's what seeped into his soul.

Kram's  book, however, is more than an extended essay on the fraught  relationship between Frazier and Ali. In addition, he hits the  well-known tropes of other elements of Frazier's life: the rural poverty  and racism he endured growing up in South Carolina; the urban poverty  and racism that were his lot later on in Philadelphia; his discovery and  nurturing as a boxer by manager Yancey "Yank" Durham and trainer Eddie  Futch; his meteoric rise to the championship during the period of Ali's  exile for refusing to drafted into the army; his up-and-down career  after the Ali win; his post-retirement successes and failures. 

Kram  Jr. delves deeper into these tropes. For  example, he lays bare the  privations of living on a farm in the South, and the life-and-death  necessity for Frazier to leave those surroundings. If he had truly been  an "Uncle Tom," Frazier could have stayed down on the farm, and we would  never have heard of him. 

Frazier  did have his foibles, and the book doesn't hide them. Though he was not  an ostentatious spendthrift,  he  was also not always a wise investor.  Like Ali, he was an inveterate womanizer, fathering a football team of  children both in and out of wedlock. He tried to mold is son Marvis into  a replica of himself, with disastrous results.

But  bestriding Joe's life like a colossus was the icon and image of  Muhammad Ali. With Ali silenced by the effects of Parkinson's disease,  Frazier unleashed his buckets of vitriol at every opportunity. It was as  though he wanted to defeat Ali again, as he had in their first fight.  Unfortunately, in the process he made himself look bad,. Kicking a man  while he's down is honorable only in mixed martial arts. 

Eventually,  Frazier showed signs of outward signs of mellowing. Appearing with Ali  at events commemorating the anniversaries of their fights, Frazier  seemed to show compassion for Ali's sadly reduced state.

But did Joe really feel that way? Or did he carry his grudge to his grave?

Kram  Jr. provides a probable answer. At the end of his book, he tells of a  final meeting between Frazier and Ali at Ali's house. The arch-rivals'  reconciliation at that time appears genuine. Perhaps Frazier really did  achieve final vindication in the face of Al's contrition. 

Here's hoping that's the case. He deserves that outcome, just as he deserves a biography of the quality and magnitude of Smokin' Joe. Kram Jr. shows clearly that Joe Frazier was nobody's B-side -- not even Muhammad Ali's.