“Webster’s dictionary defines excellence as ‘the state or condition of being excellent.’”
— Joe Frazier (At the the First Annual Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence awards show, In Season 3 episode of The Simpsons, “Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?” Written by John Swartzwelder.)
Joe Frazier died recently, and the common thing in all the tributes I’ve read on the man’s life is a sense of what he had to overcome to develop the skill he had an inclination for – and then of living in a world where it often seemed like his victories existed in a vacuum.
He got onto the 1964 Olympics boxing team as an alternate, and, even after breaking his thumb in his penultimate fight, brought home the gold. This didn’t change a whole lot about Frazier’s life outside the ring, which had been an uphill endeavor since he left his hometown in South Carolina at the age of 15. In the land of Jim Crow, he wasn’t going to let himself be dominated by that, so leaving was his best option. When he was younger, Frazier’s uncle compared him to Joe Louis. Being compared to a man who could go toe to toe with anyone gave him an aspiration that he worked at constantly, and the ensuing career that took off in Philly is well defined by this quote off his:
“I saw myself as a warrior who was obliged to carry on through thick and thin. I wasn’t the best athlete in the world, but I had that fire in my belly. And I was reckless in my determination.”
As far as heavyweight boxers go, Frazier was a bit on the small side. Some of the guys he’d fight against were boxers whose formidability, in part, came from their size. There’s an old stereotype in the world: a person of short stature who tries to dominate everything around them to make up for it. That tendency, in and of itself, has little to do with literal height, and Frazier, by most accounts, didn’t have it. Frazier was, as writer Norman Partridge put it, “a fighter who did his talking in the ring.” Instead of selling himself, he made it his business to show what he was worth. And at that, he excelled.
During a comedy show in the Philly area, Bill Burr was the third comedian to be booed by a large portion of the crowd (with no real cause for it). If you’re willing to listen to Burr take on that crowd for his whole ten minute set, you’ll also hear him take Philly to task for ignoring Frazier, the self-made champion whom built himself up there.