What Joe Frazier taught me about PR

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier — the great boxing champion — died Monday night. There are, of course, numerous eulogies celebrating his life and achievements. But this is also perhaps a good time to delve into some cultural questions.

There are many possible story lines this could spur. For example, the heavyweight championship was once the most important sports title in the world. Today, few could tell you the name of the current champ. But that’s not what interests me most.

From a cultural perspective, Frazier’s story is a potent example of why PR matters — how media manipulation works — and why perception is reality.

And here we turn to the unfortunate tactics employed by a great boxer — and perhaps an even greater showman — Muhammad Ali. As USA Today writes,

Ali had gotten under Frazier’s skin leading up to the [so-called “Fight of the Century”], [when he] called him such names as “Uncle Tom,””ugly,” “chump,” “ignorant” and “dumb.”

It was racial taunting at its worst, and it would affect Frazier for the rest of his life. Ali made it worse by continuing to taunt Frazier throughout their careers, calling Frazier a “gorilla” before their final fight in Manila.

(Emphasis mine.)

For Ali, this was a good schtick — and consistent with how he operated. It wasn’t personal. He used similar slurs against Floyd Patterson — and even wanted white fighter Chuck Wepner to call him “the N word” in order to gin up excitement for their bout (never mind what that would have done to Wepner’s reputation for the rest of his life).

Some of this was smart psychological warfare, straight out of the pages of Sun Tzu. Ali would intimidate and defeat his opponents in their minds before the first punch was thrown. He would turn the crowd against his opponents — just as he did in Zaire when he George Foreman had to endure — not just Ali’s rope-a-dope — but the crowd’s chants of “Ali bomaye!” (which means “Ali, kill him!”)

When it came to Frazier, the “crowd” was more ephemeral — but losing them was just as devastating. It impacted him for the rest of his life.

It was also ironic.

Joe Frazier was poor black kid from Beaufort, S.C. who made his bones on the mean streets of Philadelphia, working at a meat packing factory. Ali, conversely, was from a relatively middle class (some would say working-class) family background. In any regard, Frazier’s experience was likely much more similar to the experience of most American blacks of his era. Yet he was portrayed as the “Uncle Tom.”

It was a punch he never saw coming. And it’s a lesson that just being good at what you do — and being authentic — isn’t enough. In this modern media world (which was rapidly changing during Frazier’s era), you ignore public relations and politics at your own peril.

This, of course, wouldn’t be the first or last time someone with lesser “street cred” persuaded the crowd to turn against someone who was actually the real deal.

I think about Frazier every time I see it happen.