The sad news came Friday that 67-year-old boxing legend Joe Frazier aka "Smokin' Joe" had checked into a hospice after being diagnosed with liver cancer. The two-time heavyweight champion of the world, Frazier is a sporting icon whose fights and persona riveted millions around the world. Best known for his brutal three-fight series with Muhammad Ali, Frazier has been the subject of books, documentaries, and television retrospectives.
When Frazier fought Ali, it was more than a sporting event, it was a living symbol of the cultural, political and generational divides rending the U.S. during the early 1970's. Frazier, though personally apolitical, came to symbolize the "silent majority" of conservative America who stood in mute opposition to the cultural changes sweeping the country at the time.
Admittedly, much of Frazier's notoriety and legend is owed to his role as Muhammad Ali's greatest foil, but there is nothing but honor in that role. To be Ali's number one rival required incredible athleticism, fearsome fortitude and a persona of pure menace and power.
Looking back on Frazier's storied career on the occasion of his grave illness, I had to ask myself if MMA would ever produce an athlete who matters the way Smokin' Joe Frazier did in the 1970's. It boils down to three factors:
- Platform & Context
By the time Smokin' Joe ascended to the heights of the sport, boxing had been firmly established as one of the world's most popular sports for at least 50 years. Culturally the term "heavyweight champion of the world" had been synonymous with the world's most formidable man for even longer than that. For the UFC to produce icons like Frazier, Ali and Foreman, it will need to firmly establish itself atop the sports firmament. The UFC has made enormous strides in the past five years, if the Fox deal is successful MMA could find itself ready to produce greatness much sooner than we might expect.
Even more importantly, to achieve icon status, the athlete has to speak to the broadest social concerns of his era. Just as Jack Johnson's career served as a proxy for the ugly racial politics of the 1910's or Joe Louis' battles with Max Schmeling dramatized the coming conflict between the USA and Nazi Germany, an icon athlete has to come to represent something far beyond sport in the minds of the public.
- Character & Persona
Obviously any great athlete will have to possess great fortitude of character just to reach the top of his/her sport, but to become a true cultural icon requires the cultivation of a larger-than-life persona that is instantly understandable. Combat sports have always excelled at creating fearsome icons like Smokin' Joe, Mike Tyson or the young George Foreman, but boxing also produced the charming Sugar Ray Leonard, the lovable older George Foreman and the unique Muhammad Ali.
MMA has certainly produced its share of outsized characters. Men like Brock Lesnar, Kimbo Slice, Ken Shamrock, Tank Abbott and Royce Gracie all captivated fans and came to represent much more than just a guy fighting in a cage in the minds of fans. What MMA has yet to produce is a personality whose charisma and significance outgrows the sport.
Performance & Competition
In the dualistic world of combat sports, its essential that any great fighter have a rival who very nearly equals him in accomplishment and charisma. Without the fearsome foil of Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali would never have become an enormous world-wide icon.
Not only must this theoretical champion have a great rival, but the two together must put on incredible fights. "The Fight of the Century" and "The Thrilla in Manilla" riveted fans with the drama happening inside the squared circle. It wasn't just the political symbolism or the pre-fight trash talk, that was just the appetizer, the sizzle. No, those fights delivered the kind of incredible action that make them endlessly re-watchable even forty years later. Very few MMA fights have approached that kind of drama, but it has been done. Frank Shamrock vs. Tito Ortiz comes to mind as do the second two fights between Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard.