As I wrote in my last post, the choice of Muhammad Ali to light the cauldron at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics was approved by 99.9 percent of everyone who saw it, but Ali's lomgtime rival Joe Frazier was among the tiny minority of dissenters.
Frazier had once supported Ali's fight against induction into the Army, saying, "If Baptists weren't allowed to fight, I wouldn't fight either." Smokin' Joe even lent Ali money and petitioned to get his boxing license reinstated while Ali was barred from fighting. Then, in 1971, before their "Fight of the Century," Ali took his penchant for showmanship too far, dismissing Frazier as an "Uncle Tom Negro" and calling him the white man's hero. The attacks bolstered Ali's black nationalist reputation at Frazier's expense. They also backfired on Ali; Frazier won, no doubt fired up by Ali's taunts. (Ali would defeat Frazier in both of their next two bouts.) Though that was Ali's way of promoting his fights - and, naturally, himself - he created a lasting enmity with Frazier, and the resentment lasted long after both men retired from boxing. By 1996, Smokin' Joe had neither forgiven nor forgotten the slurs against him. When Ali lit the flame at the 1996 Olympics, Frazier - who, remember, had supported Ali's draft resistance - was furious, bashing him for speaking out against and showing disrespect for their mutual country. He was so furious to see Ali light the Olympic flame in Atlanta, in fact, that he even said, "It would have been a good thing if he would have lit the torch and fallen in. If I had the chance, I would have pushed him in."
Forget for a moment that Ali lit the fuse to the cauldron, not the cauldron itself. Frazier's anger was understandable, and his resentment even soured into jealousy; he said that he should have been chosen to light the Olympic flame. Well, why not? Frazier himself showed incredible courage at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, where he dealt with severe pain from an injured left thumb but managed to stay on his feet in the gold-medal heavyweight match even without his trademark left hook . . . and win the title. Besides, after 1960 Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson lit the flame at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and with no guarantee that an American city would get the Summer Games again so soon after Atlanta, and as Ali had been, like Johnson, a member of the 1960 U.S. team, hey, why not give someone from '64 a chance? Because Ali was Ali, of course.
This story has a happy ending. Ali apologized to Frazier through the New York Times in 2001 for his taunts, and by the end of his life, Frazier had no longer harbored any feelings for Ali; Ali even attended Frazier's funeral in 2011. But their past differences, though long past, ought to serve as a reminder that Ali, whose adopted surname means "most high," had a capacity for stooping low. But Ali grew as he aged, later explaining he was "confused" by circumstances that led him to make incendiary comments on race and culture to the media (especially on Mike Douglas's talk show, which, coincidentally, was based in Frazier's adopted hometown of Philadelphia) and the especially personal comments to his opponents. Frazier, to his credit, came to understand that.
And with Ali's death, George Foreman is the last survivor of the great triumvirate that dominated boxing in the seventies.