Left Hook, Write Cross

Phillip Giarraffa, Counselor, the Percy E. Sutton SEEK Program at Queens College

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I originally wrote parts of this reflection last November to share with my students. It served to explain how writing was inexplicably dormant in my life for many years and how the death of a boxing legend caused me to remember how this wasn’t always so. My expectation for sharing it here …well maybe it is to wake you up too!

When boxing great Joe Frazier died, a part of me awoke! It has been over a year since Smokin’ Joe’s death but the news still hits me like one of his left hooks. AliFrazier_01At the time what hurt most, at least for me, was how little notoriety the Philadelphia fighter’s death received on our local news channels. I felt that one of boxing’s all time greats deserved more than the 60 seconds allotted but in coming to know more about the man who was Joe Frazier, this brief, straightforward bulletin should not come as a surprise. In some ways that was how he would have wanted it. Oddly, Frazier is the reason that I started writing for myself again – 15 years later. In joking with myself, I reckon that I am the Joe Frazier of writing. Our styles – his fighting and my writing – are nothing overly flashy but we are constantly in your face. And much like Joe, I don’t care about the beating that you might give me after reading anything I write because my point comes across like Frazier’s left hook, resonating throughout whomever chooses to read me. In my return to the ring of writing, something pretty significant happened. Joe Frazier’s death caused me to reflect a great deal – not on boxing but on education. Although much of Frazier’s boxing career was before my time, I feel I owe him this – call it a tribute or just a plain thanks.

During my freshman year in college, I was enrolled in a second semester college writing course and for our final project we were asked to research a topic and write a persuasive essay. Persuasive as in Coke vs. Pepsi, Nike Air vs. Reebok Pumps, McDonalds vs. Burger King, etc. I had a difficult time finding a topic, as I felt all of my interests would present some form of bias causing my paper to appear somewhat one-sided. It just so happened that in reading an edition of the Sunday New York Daily News I stumbled upon an article regarding a boxing match that ended in tragedy. Basically, the article was calling for the abolition of professional boxing and it thankfully had all the makings of a persuasive essay.

I was never overly fanatical about the sport of boxing but I did follow the boxers of my generation including the likes of ‘The Golden Boy’ Oscar De La Hoya, Pernell ‘Sweet Pea’ Whitaker, Roy Jones Jr., and yes (offering no apologies), ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson. However, my research for this paper took me beyond my generation and this is where I was truly introduced to Joe Frazier. I always knew of Frazier from that quick 1976 cameo in the movie Rocky, where prior to the climatic fight, Frazier was being warmly received by the Philadelphia crowd while Apollo Creed danced around the ring screaming “you next Joe, you next Joe.” In peering through periodicals, books, and newspaper clippings of past boxing matches the name Joe Frazier appeared often but it seldom stood alone nor could it ever be separated from another one: Muhammad Ali.

If Joe Frazier was depicted as the brutal exhibition that is boxing – always moving forward, never retreating, taking punishment as much as he dealt it with a left hook that could move a tank – Muhammad Ali was the epitome of boxing as a sweet science – a chemical equation that was unmatched, graceful with his feet – and his words (no matter how disparaging), lightening fast, and very smart. They gave us 3 epic boxing matches beginning with 1971’s ‘Fight of the Century,’ where both fighters entered as undisputed champions. It divided a nation, spurred inter-racial tension, and took the major ‘sporting event’ to another level. The second fight took place in January of 1974 with less extravagance but with equal unbending animosity. The boxing trilogy culminated with the 1975 ‘Thrilla in Manilla,’ which is recognized as one of the most brutal exhibitions in boxing history leaving both combatants to pick up remnants of their souls, which were scattered across the sweltering Filipino landscape.

The enmity between Ali and Frazier went beyond the ring and it remained well after their careers were over. And this is what left me wanting more even after my persuasive essay was completed. I wanted to know about these men outside of boxing, their upbringing, the things that triggered such an intense rivalry, and the major historical events that played such an antagonizing role. It wasn’t until I read Mark Kram’s 2002 book The Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier
 that I truly understood the fierce hatred behind one of history’s most storied rivalries. However, this historical 
account also introduced me to a different, volatile era where the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War divided a nation; where the influences of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam were embraced by some and feared by
others; where the term blue-collar was seemingly applied only to the city of Philadelphia. And to think, it all started with a writing assignment for my English class.

As for my persuasive essay, “Boxing: Sweet Science or Brutal Exhibition,” I started the introductory paragraph with a quote from one of the boxers that took part in the tragic fight that initiated that article long ago in the Sunday Daily News. I never forgot those lines, which I felt forged the greatest introductory paragraph of my entire existence. I remember vowing to return to my essay someday so I could continue working on it. Why? It inspired me and I felt that the finished work could be something special! That is the fundamental purpose of education, isn’t it? Find an interest, make it a passion, and turn it into a career or hobby.

I reread The Ghosts of Manila shortly after Joe Frazier’s death and again found myself entirely enthralled with the principle characters. It took me 15 years and one death to return to my persuasive essay – in thought alone. Unfortunately, my original essay no longer remains – gone with the likes of the floppy disk, microfiche and MS-DOS. Maybe this essay was to serve as my returning solace. The funny thing is that, when confronting death, you often have no words to express how you truly feel, especially when it is your friend who grieves. I find it ironic how the death of this boxing legend did the opposite for me. It spurned me to find words AND find them often.

I originally wrote this piece on the morning of Joe Frazier’s death. It brought back some emotion in me that I needed to get out. I do not own a punching bag so I was left with no choice but to write. This piece was originally for my eyes only, but then a funny thing happened! I decided to ‘step into the ring’ and let my students read it. Personally, I was not worried about getting knocked out. I just hoped that my students felt my proverbial punches and that they would be inspired to go 12 rounds with their passions.

I never met Joe Frazier, but I wish I had – even if it was just in passing to thank him for waking me up and inspiring me to write again for all to see.

I Luv Joe!!!

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2 Comments

  • Contrary to a widely held opinion, boxers need to be above average intelligent to rise to fame. The same goes for many other if not most sports but in boxing the contrast seems so much more striking (although most people would attribute an Asian martial artist considerable intelligence in the same breath). What you have made me curious of though is: what was it that set Clay/Ali and Frazier apart so much biographically that they would rather hate each others’ guts?

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