A spirited biography of the thunder-punching boxer.
Former Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter Kram Jr. (Like Any Normal Day: A Story of Devotion, 2012) picks up where his late father left off with his reporting for Sports Illustrated on the long feud between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier (1944-2011), particularly as played out in 1975 in a celebrated match, the “Thrilla in Manila.” As the story opens, Frazier—called “Smokin’ Joe” after promising the press corps that he would “come out smokin’ ” in a 1967 prizefight—is in a reflective mood, surprisingly gentle for someone reputed to be so fierce. Yet Frazier earned every bit of that reputation: “His way was the hard way,” writes the author. “In the ring, he lived and died by the simple yet daring principle of engagement that in order to deliver one bone-crunching blow, it was too frequently necessary to absorb three in exchange.” Absorb the blows he did, while pounding just about everyone who came up against him, including Rocky-era Sylvester Stallone, who recalls “a thunderous left hook that was planted extremely deep in my body.” The author speculates that Frazier, who died in 2011 with no autopsy, may have been finally felled by chronic traumatic encephalopathy following years of concussive blows. The author covers all the bases while focusing, appropriately, on the long enmity between Frazier and Ali, who called the younger boxer a “gorilla" and played mind games, race cards, and all sorts of mischief, later claiming that he did it to stir up attention and sales at the box office. Frazier was thought never to have forgiven Ali for the barrage of insults, but the closing of the narrative finds the two boxers in a tender moment, albeit one that might have blown apart had the two been their younger, healthier selves. The narrative is sometimes by-the-numbers, but Kram pays appropriate homage to a fighter who, though lacking in finesse, dominated heavyweight boxing for nearly a decade.
Bookish fans of the sweet science will flock to this biography.