HBO is airing a great special this weekend on the rivalry between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. This documentary, Thrilla in Manila, is exciting and noteworthy because it presents the epic battles between these two men from the under appreciated, and little spoken to point of view of Joe Frazier.
As I have noted many times, Muhammad Ali is one of my personal heroes. But, many forget how complicated and conflicted Ali the man, as opposed to the myth, actually was.
As the great book Ghosts of Manila details, Ali could be cruel, selfish, and mercurial. Thus, Ali-Frasier was so powerful a rivalry precisely because it was so intensely personal. To that point, Ali (as he also did with Foreman and Liston) was able to present himself as the "authentic" black man, while he portrayed his opponents as "Uncle Toms." Ironically, Ali trafficked in some of the worst racial stereotypes to demean his opponents, when in fact, Ali was much more privileged in his childhood and upbringing, and in this imaginary more "White", than either Liston, Foreman, or Frazier.
Not surprisingly, given that his show routinely features some of the most honest and real conversations about race in this country, this past week Howard Stern had a great discussion about the politics of black authenticity in the Ali-Frazier rivalry.
Some quick thoughts. One, while funny at the time, I would suggest in hindsight that there was indeed something pernicious and foul in Ali's calling Frazier a "gorilla" and a "monkey." Two, did you know that Ali spoke to a KKK rally where he reiterated their shared commitment to racial separatism? So, was Ali a hero or a villain? Or was he a little of both? Who was the real hero of the Ali-Frazier rivalry? Joe Frazier or Muhammad Ali?