Muhammad Ali was there, his body frail and trembling in the throes of Parkinson's disease. Fellow boxers Bernard Hopkins, Larry Holmes and Michael Spinks were there, too, among others, including promoter Don King, paying their respects to Joe Frazier at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia.
The tributes poured out last week immediately following Frazier's death from liver cancer at age 67. And they continued at his funeral, with videotaped messages from Mike Tyson, Donald Trump and Mickey Rourke.
But the most stirring came from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, delivering the eulogy and comparing Frazier's legend to that of Sylvester Stallone's Philadelphia-based movie character, Rocky, who has a statue at the base of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Jackson wondered why city leaders embraced Rocky so much, but not Frazier.
"Tell them Rocky was not a champion. Joe Frazier was," Jackson said. "Tell them Rocky is fictitious; Joe was reality. Rocky's fists are frozen in stone. Joe's fists are smokin'. Rocky never faced Ali or Holmes or Foreman. Rocky never tasted his own blood. Champions are made in the ring, not in the movies. There deserves to be a statue of Joe Frazier in downtown Philadelphia."
Frazier isn't the first person to be underappreciated in life but lauded in death. And he won't be the last. But the respect and honor he's gained for his contributions to boxing are well-deserved, even if late arriving.
It wasn't Frazier's fault and it wasn't totally ours, either. We succumbed to Ali's gift of gab and his handsome face. Frazier had neither. Worse, we punished him for being more conservative and less flamboyant than Ali. Those were personality traits, not character flaws, but we bought into Ali's showmanship and taunts.
Fair or not, Frazier was viewed as the "establishment" figure, versus Ali's profile as a "militant." But as we've come to learn and appreciate, fighters are needed on the inside as well as the outside. In the end, Frazier and Ali wanted the same thing for their people.
"He was really fighting for freedom, justice and equality the same as Ali was doing," Don King said. "Only he couldn't articulate it as well as Ali. Therefore, he would use it in a competitive style with the courage and invincible spirit."
Now we know.
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