Originally published March 8, 1971
NEW YORK — Joe Frazier picked cotton and he picked potatoes and he picked cucumbers and he harvested watermelon, but the toughest thing to pick was something called "muss."
"M-U-S-S," he remembers. "It's like a tobacco leaf, only a little smaller. They mix it in with the tobacco. You can't sell it when it's wet. You have to stick it in the sun and let it dry out.
"Whooo, it's lighter than tobacco, takes a lot more to make a pouund. Grows about three feet high, leaves like cabbage. You lay it in the sun and it kind of crumbles up. You get maybe 19 cents a pound for it."
Nineteen cents a pound. Maybe an hour to pick a pound of it, stooped over, lugging a sack, with the South Carolina sun broiling holes in your back. Tough work for small pay, but not as tough as chopping wood.
"Toughest job I ever had," Joe Frazier remembers. "Cuttin' wood. My daddy on one side of the saw, me on the other. Oak trees, mostly. Cross-cut saw. I was eight or none. No place else to go. No pay. Just something my daddy asked me to do. I was never one to run from work.
"He'd let me drive through the woods. He'd shift the gears, I'd turn the wheel. I drove a tractor when I was seven. Yeah, I did it all. I handled manure. It was fertilizer for us. Just as good as anything else on this earth. I'd take it up from the fields, spread it around the crops. Nah, I didn't hate it. It was a job.
"Same as working in a slaughterhouse/ In '62, I was making $2.40 an hour. Just for utility work. The butchers, they were getting more than $3 an hour. Anything you do, if it's worth it, it's gonna take work. I try and teach my kids that. That way, they know what life is all about. My boy, he's got his chores. My girls, they got beds to make up. My kids, that gives me incentive to work a little harder. I'm not working for nothin'. I'm workin' for somethin'."
Joe Frazier goes to work again tonight. Fifteen rounds or less, $2,500,000 win-or-lose-or-draw. A fist fight. Against an undefeated Muhammad Ali. A fist fight. A job.
Frazier talks about it that way and people cringe. A job. Is that all it is? What does that say about the people paying $150 to sit close enough to hear the savage thwap that leather makes against a man's body when it's slick with sweat? What about the millions of dollars people will spend to watch it on closed-circuit television?
What does it tell us about our civilization? All those words, all that money, all that hysteria about a fist-fight. Two grown men trying to bash each other's brains in. That's too harsh a mirror to look into. So, we glorify the fist-fight, make it some kind of cosmic confrontation, good-against-evil, right-against-wrong, peave-against-war, black-against-white.
The truth gets twisted out of shape. Ali becomes the symbol of standing up to Mr. Charlie, flaunting his color, thumbing his nose at the establishment, a taunting, brash symbol of black ambitions.
Having found this symbol, however flawed it might be, his passionate followers don't want it torn down. Joe Frazier becomes an object of their ridicule, falsely labeled as a plodding, passive butler for the white man's schemes.
"I'm blacker than he is," Joe Frazier cries out. He is 27 and unschooled in the ways of political action. But I have seen the tattered house he grew up in, and I have been to Beaufort, S.C., when the highway patrolman stopped his Cadillac and called him "boy" and the bank clerks sniffed suspicously at a check he wanted to deposit and shunted him from office to office like some kind of off-color joke.
Joe Frazier writes the way he does because he was born short, not because he was born poor. He has short arms and heavy legs and he must burrow his chin into the other man's chest and whack him with both hands if he is to survive in a fist fight. Ali says he will win because Frazier will be petrified with the prospect of facing the symbol of black yearning for equality, for freedom of justice. "I will win because I have a cause," Ali shouts.
"He is just another man out there," Frazier says softly.
It is just another fist-fight once that bell rings. It deserved most of the attention it got because it matches two skillful, talented men, both undefeated. But it is not some morality play, some fervent crusade, some religious rite, some political crisis. It's a first-fight and it behooves us all to remember that, the fighters and writers and spectators.
I think that Ali will try for an early knockout. I think that Frazier will survive the storm, perhaps getting off the canvas once. And I think that he will pound the will and the strength out of Ali's exile-softened body and win by a knockout in the seventh round.
And I promise you I will not regard it as a triumph of good-over-evil, of patience-over-militance, of dove-over-hawk. It is a fist-fight, a job. At least one of the fighters knows that is all that it is. And if the other man wants to deceive himself into thinking it is so much more than that, then it is his problem, and perhaps, our problem.