Desperation is mostly inseparable from masculinity. Men strain for fame, for female attention, for sad, trivial triumphs over one another. We are a people perpetually trying to figure it all out—flexing in the mirror, using lines we've heard before, trying to seem bold and dignified. We're not cowboys or poets. If we are, we wear it as a disguise. Mostly, we are vulnerable and self-conscious and probably masturbating for the third time on a Tuesday afternoon, because we're off work and that Lea Thompson scene in All the Right Moves just came on. We are not men, but almost. Note: columns may also contain William Holden hero worship and meditations on cured meats.
Joe Frazier is watching, with a catatonic calm, the way one might watch a lava lamp or an infomercial for steak knives, a video of himself getting beaten very nearly to death by Muhammad Ali. It is 2009. He is 65 years-old. He is sitting in the room he lived in above his gym in Philadelphia. The room is crammed with scuffed furniture and stray papers. He is watching a recording of the Thrilla in Manilla, his third and final fight against Ali, for the first time in his life. The top halves of his pupils are covered by his eyelids. He is not falling asleep, he is not about to blink; this is just how his face works now. It looks like melting Dali clocks; like someone poured a liquid face out of a can over a skull and it just hardened this way.
In the 14th round of this fight, Joe Frazier came as close to self-sacrifice as a human can reach without a crucifix and three nails. He has no defense besides biological impulse. He is flailing and swaying with his head down, half-blind and glistening with sweat. His ability in these moments to endure physical pain warrants a redefinition of the species. To say Frazier is standing would be inaccurate; he is leaning, perpetually, suspended by some invisible force incomprehensible to non-Frazier humans.
In some ways we measure our celebrities by how closely in size their televisions are to garage doors, but there Joe Frazier is, broke, in the dark, looking at something boxy and fuzzy, his own obituary on a 15-inch screen. Sixty-five-year-old Joe Frazier is sitting with his mouth half-open, not horrified or frustrated but veering into that state of near-religious contentment one enters after taking a large shit. He smiles and mumbles, "He couldn't take me out, though." It was as if he and Ali believed they were two rocks and they knew that you couldn't really kill a rock, pieces of the rock just fall off, limbs and organs and brain cells, and they didn't mind getting ruined by this fight because they were going to "live" forever. This fight was going to make them immortal.
Frazier is talking to the screen, to himself, but he is talking to another person, almost; to Smokin' Joe Frazier. “Need to get a little closer, Smoke,” he says to the screen. The Frazier that is in the ring, on pixelated YouTubes, in your memories, you cannot kill that man. The one who dies is the one deteriorating in a chair in that dark room in Philadelphia, the one whose sentences by the end were just elongated, coarse exhales.
I spent last Thursday night, the second anniversary of Joe Frazier’s death, in North Philadelphia, where he lived during the final years of his life. It is a place that looks like it is dissolving, from the street lights to the shutters to the pavement. Nothing seems completely upright. It is a place that is not old in a regal way, like your grandparents’ furniture or sarcophagi behind glass in a museum, but post-apocalyptic, dirty and brittle, like everything was constructed from old newspaper or stale crackers. It looks like a sandcastle after the ocean has washed over it. It feels sprawling and claustrophobic simultaneously. There are narrow backstreets, dark and craterous and uneven, and there are barren, fenced-in lots, dedicated to nothing besides preserving the mirage of order among the encroaching decay. It is a place that feels both aggressively lived in and completely abandoned.
2917 North Broad Street is Joe Frazier’s gym, but it is not his gym anymore. It is a discount furniture store. A bright, massive room peddling vomit-colored ottomans and motel lobby furniture at KNOCKOUT PRICES. Above the furniture store is the apartment where he lived. It is as if he died and then everything associated with him evaporated. There were no flowers at the door, just a security guard named Michael, with two bubbly scars on his right cheek, who didn’t have much to say about Joe Frazier or anything else, except that you can’t take pictures inside the store, man, sorry. This is what we all become. Faded, crumbling, forgotten, our memories tacked with liquidation signs.
The store manager goes by Miss Kim, and she will pass your information along to the owner, who will absolutely get back to you tomorrow, which you will later translate to mean “never, at any point in the course of human history.” At the gas station next door, a homeless man named Anthony will wipe your wheels and your mirrors for a pack of cigarettes. His teeth look like pencil erasers. Years ago, he says, he used to wash Joe Frazier’s car for him, at a place behind the gym called the Black Glove.
A few hours after he lost to Ali in the Philippines, lying in his hotel room, Joe Frazier said this: "Man, I hit him with punches that'd bring down the walls of a city.” Then, he put his head on the pillow and went to sleep.
Joe Frazier was the purest manifestation of a certain idea—that all we have is the most intensified version of ourselves, wielding that version against all the versions of other people that exist in the universe. If it works, we go to sleep. If it doesn’t, we go to sleep anyway. Then, you die. Frazier was so regimented, so propelled not specifically by triumph but by maintaining a dedication to this process. “Mind over matter” is a simplistic response to pain, but to Frazier it seemed like a program he executed. Where Ali was bravura bordering on performance art, almost diabolical, Frazier was simmering intensity, quiet menace, knotted and crouched over, his chin tucked into his chest, stomping into his opponents like some kind of kamikaze robot. Pain was data to override. If Ali was something above us to live in awe of, to revere, Frazier was someone among us; a breathing, pulsing, fortune cookie creed: hunt relentlessly for everything you desire, and it will be yours.
Ali maintained in orbit around him a collection of sycophants and hagiographers, propagandists and exotic women. What he represented, what he attached himself to, was its own blaring entity. Frazier was coopted by white America to be used as some emblem of stoicism and punch-your-time-card obedience; he was used as an instrument to take down “black” ideals, or the cackling antagonism of Ali. Frazier wanted no part of that, or anyone’s agenda besides his own: beating someone’s organs until they neared paralysis, smashing them in the face with possibly the greatest left hook in the history of the sport, and then disappearing. “I don’t need to be loved,” Frazier said in 1971. “When I get out there to do my roadwork, I’m alone. When I get in the ring, I’m alone. I go where I’ve got to go—I’m always alone.” He believed in a cold pursuit of something; his objective was not to proselytize but to give himself over to the sport. Not to transcend it or to reshape it but to be consumed by it, to thrive within its merciless structure. To beat Ali, he said, he was willing to die.
Even in his sincere critiques of Frazier, Ali considered Frazier’s style beneath him, barbaric and artless. Ali called Frazier “a simple hard-working fellow.” Ali was enamored with his own ability to captivate an audience. “What I want them to remember is my art and my science,” he said. But Frazier reveled in the contrast. He was sincere and blunt, in his speech and the way he fought. If Ali was a piano sonata, Frazier was like plugging a subwoofer into a volcano.
It is 1973. Bill Cosby, aloof and perpetually out of breath, is telling a joke about a saxophone on the Dick Cavett Show. Jack Benny is sitting to his left with his pointy knees crossed, wagging a pipe. Dick Cavett, jittery and narrow, occasionally oscillates in his chair. Joe Frazier walks on stage and Cavett asks him if he knows where he is, because George Foreman has recently TKOd Frazier in four minutes and 35 seconds. After the fight, Frazier said that he should have tried to be more evasive, but that, "my pride wouldn't let me.” Live free or die. Joe Frazier was a fucking state motto.
Sitting next to Cavett, Frazier pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket. He reads off that he will never lose another fight. It is one of those pre-meditated talk show gags intended to humanize, to express that you are Happy To Be Here. No one is really laughing. Benny calls him a nice fella. The three of them ask Frazier, basically, in several different ways, Are you actually retarded for thinking you could beat Foreman? How painful was it? Frazier says, “It’s not a kind of hurt like somebody stuck a knife in you, you don’t feel it that way.” Bill Cosby is asking if there is a little man inside Joe Frazier’s brain that tells him to quit. Joe is trying to answer, but they’re not listening. What Joe Frazier represents, blind determination, is itself a punch line. They are laughing to his face almost as if he weren’t there.
They will build a shrine to consumerism in the building where you used to live. They won’t listen when you tell them you are not finished. The security guard at the door won’t care who you are. But Joe Frazier is there. He is trying to say something. I am watching. Rocks can’t die.
Previously - Look on Mike Tyson, Ye Mighty, and Despair