The New York Times called Muhammad Ali “a titan of boxing and the twentieth century.”
He had been out of public sight for many years, but his death at 74-years-old was a reminder he was once the most famous person on earth.
Ali’s charisma was such that people would remember their encounters with him all their lives, no matter how fleeting.
I saw him twice, from a distance. Once was in Overbrook, Pa., a fashionable Philadelphia suburb where he once lived. His home was near Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. The toddling daughter of one of the professors caught Ali’s eye and he would occasionally stop and talk with her father. I was in Overbrook to help that professor pack for a move and was astonished to see Ali drive by in a huge open convertible. Ali recognized the professor and raised his arm in a power salute.
The professor waived back. “That guy’s always doing that,” he said. “I think it means he’s a boxer or something.”
The second time I saw Ali was in at the Valley Forge Music Fair during a performance by Redd Foxx. Somebody handed Foxx a note and he interrupted his blue monologue. “Muhammad Ali is in the audience,” he said. “Ali, the greatest of all time. Stand up, Muhammad.”
On the far side of the round, a silhouetted figure stood and waved. The crowd cheered loudly and Foxx waited until the applause subsided.
I was impressed by how little effort it took Ali to be the star of any space he occupied, even when he was only a member of the audience.
For Joe Frazier — a lesser titan of the twentieth century — Ali’s overweening fame was probably more annoying than his left hook. Frazier couldn’t escape the fact that his name was forever linked with Ali’s, and always in a supporting role.
I once made a small contribution to Frazier’s predicament when I interviewed him for the Pottstown Mercury. Frazier had been retired for years in 1994, and he was in Pottstown as a celebrity spokesman for a furniture company. It didn’t make sense to send a sports writer to cover him, so the editor sent me. Like many other journalists, I couldn’t imagine Frazier apart from Ali. Part of my story read:
There was Joe, leaning back and stretching out his legs, happily reminiscing with a small group of admirers.
“I’m always glad to remember,” said the Champ in response to a question about the old days. “I have no bad memories. Some of the guys I remember, and if I remember them I think about them.”
Trim and dressed to the nines in a fashionable gray suit, Frazier ticked off a list of guys he remembered
“Briscoe. Archie Moore. The late, great Jersey Joe Walcott. Joe Louis.
“But Joe,” someone shouted, “aren’t you leaving someone out?”
I was the someone who asked the question.
Frazier snorted as if he were ducking an imaginary left and leaped to his feet. Smiling broadly, he showed he can speak volumes about his old nemesis, Muhammad Ali, without mentioning his name.
Frazier stretched his arms stiffly, shifted his weight from foot to foot and feigned a blank expression on his face. He opened and closed his mouth, but no words came out. A couple of shoppers burst out laughing when they realized who he was imitating.
“We got him slowed down now,” exclaimed Frazier. “He got the sleeping sickness. What they call it? Parkinson’s?”
Joe flexed a bicep that was still hard as iron. “Feel that,” he invited a fan. “That’s what he got."
Later on, using a blue marker, Frazier scribbled his name on color photographs of himself and bantered happily with his admirers.
“Who was the greatest heavyweight of all time?” asked one.
“Well, I’m one of them,” he said, beaming.
Joe Frazier was certainly one of the greats, and he was a kind, generous, and funny man.
But as reminded by Ali's death, it is clear that Smokin’ Joe would always be one of a large cast of characters in the twentieth century that helped Ali earn the title by which he will always be remembered: