This morning I received word that Smoking Joe Frazier passed away from liver cancer.

I wasn’t really a boxing fan, but while it’s quite possible now to grow up never seeing a boxing match live or on television (my children have never seen a match), it wasn’t possible growing up in the seventies and eighties. Part of this is due to larger structural forces–once pay per view takes over the boxing market you had to WANT to watch boxing to see it.

But part of this is due to the boxers themselves. And of these figures three loom large. George Foreman. Muhammad Ali. Joe Frazier.

I include Foreman largely because Foreman made what I think is the most challenging transformation I’ve ever seen in a sports figure. Watch When We Were Kings to get a sense of what I’m saying–Foreman at his prime was viewed as being brutal, vicious, and mute. You wouldn’t want to be alone with him in a ring. You wouldn’t want to be in a dark alley with him. Now?

Muhammad Ali was the first modern sports celebrity. And the best fighter of his era–one of the best of all times. Absolutely brilliant. Could think in the ring about as fast as he could talk. At one time he was the most recognizable face in the world. His transformation from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali mirrored to an extent the transformation from “negro” to “black”, particularly in urban, northern, men. This transformation required and came with politics.

But this transformation ALSO required Joe Frazier.

Frazier was one of the few boxers to publicly support Ali and give him resources when he was in exile (Ali was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War). Frazier also gave Ali his greatest fights, in fact Ali noted that his last fight with Frazier brought him closer to death than anything he’d ever done. We don’t watch boxing, we don’t watch Ali, without drama. Ali’s last fight with Frazier in particular was dramatic.

But…and here’s the missed moment. Frazier also provided a convenient target for Ali–who derided him as being an Uncle Tom–in the lead up to their last fight. Now in hindsight, it’s likely that Ali did this in order to drum up support. It’s also possible that Ali did this to generate interest in the fight.

However, that last fight happens during a moment where intra-racial contention between black populations was largely driven by cultural politics, was largely driven by a fight over racial authenticity. When Ali’s racial insults stuck, black people by the thousands arguably turned their back on Frazier.

For years.

The best video account of this remains Thrilla in Manilla.

……

Frazier’s death also occurs the day after the twentieth anniversary of the day Magic Johnson disclosed his HIV status to the world.

I remember where I was the following weekend–my fraternity sponsored a three-on-three basketball tournament that we ended up dedicating to Magic. But I don’t quite remember where I was when I heard the news–maybe the deli?

Whatever the case, Magic was at the prime of his career, and like many others I thought we would see him die before our eyes. I am glad we were wrong. Undoubtedly Magic’s disclosure paved the way for increased awareness about HIV and AIDS and resources to combat them.

But what I remember most was the interview Magic gave on the Oprah show, with his wife Cookie. Magic, who’d proclaimed that he’d slept with approximately 25,000 different women, was asked by Oprah about those relationships. I forget the exact question wording, and I won’t get the response exactly right…but I remember Magic basically condemning his partners as being ho’s.

Now he probably felt he had to do that, given Cookie’s presence. And he probably fervently believed what he was saying.

However, I recall doing the math. Let’s say each of those women slept with 100 men.

He’d still slept with 250 times that many women.

And THEY were the ho’s?

And then of course there’s the reality that it’s incredibly difficult for men to contract HIV from female partners. It isn’t as hard to contract HIV from male ones.

I examine the politics of black popular culture in part because of our unique history–black people in general used popular culture to communicate what they couldn’t through other means. But I also examine the politics of black popular culture because black cultural workers often use narratives to reproduce inequality between black populations. In these two moments–in Ali marking Frazier as not being black enough, in Magic condemning the thousands of women he slept with (and dodging the reality of sexual fluidity)–we see poignant examples of opportunities missed. Opportunities to expand what we think of as black identity, to expand how we care for and about black populations. These missed opportunities shouldn’t be considered the same as the opportunity missed when George W. Bush told Americans they should “shop” in response to 9/11. But they should be considered.