Appreciation for old school mentality doesn’t die with prize fighter

I’m old school. I don’t have any piercings. No tattoos. I’m of the belief that a lot can be said without uttering a word—that athletes can make much bolder statements with their actions between the lines than they can on any Twitter posting.

These athletes possess a far greater amount of something than the boastful peacocks that inhabit our current sports environment: grace.

Joe Frazier had grace.

Frazier, the heavyweight champion whose epic trilogy with Muhammad Ali etched his name in boxing immortality, died Monday after a bout with liver cancer.

In the ring, Frazier could in no way be mistaken for graceful. His dug-in, swarming, bull-in-a-china-closet mentality coupled with a left hook that could nearly knock down skyscrapers was cruder than a Model T.

Out of the ring, however, Frazier embodied the hard-nosed unobtrusive sportsman who studied at the school of hard knocks..

Unfortunately, Frazier’s quiet demeanor and humble background was often used against him.

In the 1970s, when contrasting fistic styles determined that Ali-Frazier would be the ultimate rivalry, Frazier was thrust into the role of Ali’s foil.

Ali, having just been suspended for his refusal for induction into the military, was seen as the people’s champion—the ambassador of the raging counter-culture. Frazier —  who had no known politics, carried the same name his entire life and shook hands with opponents before fights — was the bad guy by default.

Ali frequently humiliated Frazier and hurled racial insults that, if made in today’s society, would cause most to wince.

The sheer force of Ali’s personality determined Frazier would play second fiddle, and Joe knew it.

Instead, Joe internalized the pain, and used it as ammunition.

Each time they’d fight, both men would push each other to a level they had not been to, forever linking their names in history.

Their final fight, nicknamed the Thrilla in Manilla, pushed both men to the brinks. Ali called the fight “the closest thing to dying” he’d ever felt.

After the 14th round, with Frazier’s eyes beginning to close, trainer Eddie Futch stopped the fight telling Joe that “nobody will forget what you did here.”

For years, Joe remained bitter about the way things played out, before the two finally made amends in recent years.

After I heard of Joe’s death I found it ironic that one of the all-time greats’ passing is not the biggest sports story. Instead of greeting readers on the front page of sports sections, it’s buried beneath one of the ugliest coaching scandals in college football history.

But it almost seems appropriate that even in death, Frazier flies under the radar.

I was fortunate enough to meet Smokin’ Joe several years back, and I will remember him as the authentic gentleman he was.

For all of us old school guys, nobody will ever forget what you did here, Joe.

JOE CUNEO

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