R.I.P. Smokin' Joe. Joe Frazier died today at the age of 67, leaving behind (of course) three classic Ali bouts and one of the great classics of sportswriting, "Ghosts of Manila" by the late Mark Kram. I reviewed "Ghosts" last year for the precursor to this blog, and I figure it would be good to edit a bit and repost it.
UPDATE: DAMN YOU SIMMONS!!!! Seriously, it was actually Simmons' original post that inspired me to read "Ghosts" and write the original book review. It's just weird we both had the exact same idea to edit or repost our reviews. It's not a coincidence, though: "Ghosts of Manila" is like an obituary to Frazier written before he died.
Mark Kram’s “Ghosts of Manila” recounts the third and final bout between heavyweights Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, in the Phillippines of the 70s so rife with corruption: the infamous "Thrilla in Manila". Kram paints Ali as a gifted and enigmatic boxer, but gives us a dark side as well: Far from the acclaimed cultural icon and civil rights leader that lives in cultural memory, Ali's is a flawed celebrity whose cultural power is by the end up for a sick sociological auction built on exploiting weaknesses in his personality and his standing. Under the influence of relatively insidious Black Muslims, Ali was at the center of a media machine that "played him like a fiddle" in Manila. Frazier, on the other hand, had done everything right: With quiet, unassuming dignity, Frazier would do what he had to in order to win in the ring: a tough, classy, scrappy competitor of the highest caliber. But as virtuous as Frazier had been, Joe found himself outcast because of Ali's defamatory and malicious statements. Joe found himself in foreboding danger because of the shady Black Muslims around Ali. And eventually, when the dust had settled, Joe found himself filled with permanent hatred because of the injustices of his experiences with Ali. Ali and Frazier, in their own ways, killed was was true and dynamic about one another in that fight.
Ali's disturbing existence is exemplified by the epilogue of "Ghosts", where his current (~2000) handlers take a shaking Ali to a quack doctor. It's surreal: Years after the symptoms of his Parkinson’s had appeared, this doctor continues to deny the reality of Ali’s neurological disorder. No, the doctor tells Ali, your problems weren’t caused by having been hit in the head hundreds of thousands of times: You have a “blood problem”. I mean, the whole episode is pathetic, lacking even the comfort of a lesson: It’s doomed to repeat forever for Ali, maybe with different handlers now and again. Throughout this whole epilogue, it’s hard to tell if Ali’s handlers (a constantly changing group of people) are malicious, or merely the hired, fungible managers of a lucrative company whose product just happens to be an individual.* And the episode raises so many disturbing questions: Are these handlers denying Ali's Parkinson's because it helps them control the purse-strings better? Is Ali himself denying the disorder to himself to prevent having to face his mortality? Is there a horrible group-think inherent to these types of “people-managers” that surround celebrities that allow spectacles like “The Decision” to go forward? The answers, Kram seems to imply, are impossible to divine, but always lead us into a sick Gordian knot of tangled lives and every sort of vice. The knot eventually strangles Ali, leaving him with bad handlers and an accommodating void of a personality, not to mention a fighting career extended to the point of parody.
*Striking resemblance to (great young sportswriter) Shane Ryan's portrait of Ric Flair, actually.
More profoundly, the knot strangles Frazier, the central tragedy of “Ghosts,” for getting too close to Ali. For even as Kram masterfully shows us Ali, Frazier’s story is clearly more important to the author. Their bouts leave Frazier with a legitimate fear of and anger at Ali and the Black Muslims. The hardworking, tenacious Frazier stands against Ali and his vicious army of handlers with grace and dignity. Meanwhile, Ali (Kram tells us) excused by silence the Black Muslims’ role in Malcolm X’s assassination. Ali had the unmitigated temerity to place the “Uncle Tom” label on authentic* Frazier and with Ali’s relative media machine, Frazier as "Uncle Tom" stuck. For awhile Frazier surreally symbolized the establishment to a lot of people. Cosmic unfairness, a ghost that won’t leave, a public image of a rivalry that is amazingly false. And it all grows on Frazier: His fear and anger at Ali slowly transmute into unbelievable, paranoid, absolute contempt. For even as he held his own, through sheer will, training and integrity, with the most brilliant, athletic heavyweight of his era, the public nevertheless understood Frazier as the enemy of Ali, a force of injustice standing in the way of Ali’s quest for glory against the American establishment.** By the epilogue with Ali's sad blood work incident, Frazier is just as damaged spiritually, making amazingly sad, bitter comments years after Manila. Granted, more recent reports have found Frazier with more pity for Ali and his devastating neurological condition, but you have to think that's all it is: Sheer sympathy.
*Frazier endured real childhood poverty, while Ali manufactured his childhood poverty out of motivation, delusion, or marketability.
**Kram expresses his mystification that Hemingway’s favorite boxer was Ali and not the stoic Frazier. But really, Kram is not mystified at all: Ali’s narrative behemoth had, over time, simply obscured all other narratives. So Hemingway couldn't really see the fighters.
Now, Kram often comes off as annoyingly moralistic, the kind of guy that uses a few pages and a flimsy pretext to call all Boomers selfish opportunists, the kind of guy that detects tiny imbalances of power and injustices, and rails angrily against them regardless of any possible justification. And this works to his disadvantage as a chronicler: We have to trust him, because we were not there, but his style is so rhetorical, so absolutely shrill at times, that we end up not wanting to trust him, and so we don’t. Similarly to Joe Menzer’s “Four Corners,” Kram’s failure to gain ideological credibility means that we have to read his history in a slightly non-literal, mythological sense. But it is a history, and what Kram lacks in credibility he more than gains in depth and breadth of understanding: "Ghosts" captures the aesthetics of boxing with great descriptions and quick biographies of its historical figures. Kram is great at finding the tiny facts that are difficult to tease out (such as that Joe Frazier was literally blind in one eye and hid it from the boxing authorities) and amazingly vivid descriptions of the instants and rounds and motions of the sweet science. Boxing in America has long had great writing as part of its heritage, and Kram continues that tradition.
And unlike “Four Corners,” which I can’t defend as a conscious mythology (I seriously doubt a mythology was actually Menzer’s intent, even if the interpretation works), Kram is conscious poet and myth writer in “Manila”. For he is a supreme craftsman: If his footwork (overbearing rhetoric) is often dodgy and clumsy, his hits (turns of phrases, literary interpretations) are still immensely powerful. His poetry yields the troubled Ali and the haunted Frazier. The story of Ali and Frazier would be interesting no matter how he told it, but Kram writes in a rhythmic, off-beat style more at home in a shelf with Steinbeck or Conrad than with Bill Simmons or even Halberstam, and at every moment you have to be on your toes for the deceptively insightful devices and questions that Kram’s sometimes straightforward metaphors and interviews belie. Like a formative Ali, Kram tunes his style, always dodging and weaving, relentlessly seeking ideal craft through the medium of writing, while at all times keeping a little corner to rest the style for awhile just to get at the fallen Frazier without any tricks or steps.