PHILADELPHIA -- Richard Nixon was rooting for Joe Frazier.
That fact can be interpreted a number of ways, even by those who weren't born when Frazier took on Muhammad Ali at Madison Square Garden in the "Fight of the Century'' on March 8, 1971. So much more was on the line that night than the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world -- politically, socially and emotionally -- that you could easily form an opinion on the fight based on who else was rooting for or against one of the fighters.
At the time, Nixon's support was important to Frazier for one reason: Frazier had gone to the president to convince him to get Ali's boxing license reinstated. The governing bodies had revoked it following Ali's refusal to enter the military based on his opposition to the war in Vietnam due to religious beliefs.
"That's the only way he was able to fight,'' Frazier recalled Thursday as he sat behind his desk in his business office, a suite on an upper floor of a hotel three blocks from Independence Hall. "And I went up to President Nixon to let his license go free, so we can get it on. And (Nixon) said, 'Joe, do you think you can take him?'
"I said, 'I got him in my back pocket.' I told the president that.'' Frazier chuckled, something he did a lot during an hour-and-a-half conversation that traveled all around the world, from his poor upbringing in the Jim Crow South to his adopted Philadelphia hometown to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics (where he won a gold medal at age 20) and, eventually, to the Garden.
The man who knocked Ali down and served him up his first professional loss looks far more fit than any 67-year-old man should, especially a 67-year-old former heavyweight champ.
His speech is altered slightly by a mild hearing loss, a little more by a still-thick South Carolina accent and seemingly not at all by any neurological damage from having taken so many punches while delivering even more. His memory is so clear, he can recall details of his days on the farm as a child, lessons his mother and father taught him, how he constructed his first punching bag, and most everything up through how he evaded Ali's jabs that night and what car dealer he recently made a promotional appearance for.
Meanwhile, either he forgot to layer on the bitter memories of Ali's taunts and insults over the years, which highlighted interviews about their bouts for years afterward, or he put them aside this time. Frazier was thankful that he reached this point of life with his health and faculties, and the energy to travel extensively and meet people. He still has significant beefs with Ali from those times, but on this day, he was gracious.
"I love people,'' Frazier said. He paused, then added: "I know there are people who don't love me. I might have caused a lot of people a lot of pain because they lost money on my fights, because they backed the wrong man. The boxing world is hard. It's hard on everybody. It was hard on me, and it was hard on everybody, including Muhammad.
"And probably George, too,'' he added, meaning of George Foreman, who infamously knocked him out in 1973, nearly two years after the Fight of the Century -- and who wound up with a second boxing career and then one as a pitchman. "Maybe we'll get it on one of these days and something good might happen. Something good for me, I mean.'' He chuckled again. "No, I like George. He's a good man and he was a good champion.''
There is no question, of course, that a lot of people hated Frazier with the same passion that Ali's detractors hated him, including some who threatened Frazier's life in the days approaching the bout.
Frazier, of course, never intended to be what Leslie Wolff, the head of the company that markets Frazier today, called a "blue-collar hero.'' Or, what Ali called "the white man's champion.'' Frazier joked frequently about the fans who lost money betting against him that night, but there was more invested than money for most, and their loss was even more acute than had they gone broke.
And Frazier is beloved by others to this day, not just by people who took sides for that first fight. "The ones who are in their teens or 20s and they'll yell, 'Hey, Smokin' Joe, how you doing?' -- I look at them and wonder how do they know about me,'' he said. "But it comes from conversations with their dads and moms and their elders, the people who are from the '60s and '70s.''
The Nixon story, though, was a reminder that Frazier was far more than the guy posed as the extreme opposite to the glib, talkative, glamorous, controversial, utterly polarizing Ali. Frazier was a major catalyst in making the fight happen. Besides his visit with the leader of the free world, he had petitioned the boxing organizations to clear Ali for the fight, helped scout locations that would host it, and even lent Ali money while he wasn't able to fight and while his legal fees mounted while fighting his case against the federal government.
"We did a whole campaign to help him get his license,'' Frazier said. "Guys like Sammy Davis Jr., guys like Frank Sinatra, all those guys -- I can go right on through everybody. All the movie stars. Burt Lancaster. And a lot of people in the world of athletes. They all said he should get another shot at it.''
Not just because everybody was so eager to see the two unbeaten champs with claims to the crown -- Frazier had earned his recognition in the ring, Ali had had his taken from him in court -- but because they believed that Ali shouldn't have been persecuted and had his livelihood taken away for his beliefs. That included Frazier. "I never thought he should have been kept from fighting,'' he said.
By being far from just an observer and far from just the opponent, he said of the frenzy that enveloped everything connected to the fight, "I wasn't surprised at anything that went on.''
But, Frazier also pointed out "It had me all tied up inside.'' If he wasn't the simple, silent, apolitical hero many made him out to be, there was still simplicity at the core of his situation: there were reasonable arguments for either man to be champ, and only one way to settle it, if they could only be allowed to do it.
"Everybody wanted to see that one,'' Frazier said. "They might not have agreed with how (Ali) thinks, and they might have wanted to see someone take him down. And others said (to me), 'You might have the championship belt, but you haven't put him down yet.''
Yet with all the hoopla, the public's divisiveness, the mania over the bout that drew an estimated 300 million viewers worldwide and caused soldiers to lay down their arms for 15 rounds to watch -- something beyond that pushed Frazier's buttons for the fight.
Ali, he said "had everybody misled. He said he was 'THE' Greatest. He shouldn't have used 'THE,' he should've used 'the.' But he said 'THE,' and nobody is 'THE' greatest except the Man above. So that made it hard on him, saying things like that.''
Frazier's beliefs were not to be trifled with any more than Ali's were, not when he had sung with his mother in church as early as he could remember; to this day, he brings gospel CDs everywhere he goes and plays them for visitors to his office. On fight night, with the eyes of the planet on the ring inside the Garden for the most anticipated sporting event ever, Ali predictably kept tweaking Frazier.
"He kept saying, 'I'm God, I'm God,''' he remembered. "I told him, 'You're in the wrong place tonight.''
Once the bell rang, Ali never quite got the upper hand, not from lack of trying: "If he'd hit me with all those jabs,'' Frazier said, "I wouldn't have been able to see. I slipped them.'' Early in the 15th and final round, Frazier put Ali on the canvas, a moment memorialized in a blown-up photo on a wall that also holds, among other memorabilia, the championship belt he originally had earned in Ali's absence.
It was far from the end of the Ali-Frazier story, but for once, there was no urge to pick at the old wounds.
"After a while, he quieted down. He's got peace,'' Frazier said, not chuckling this time. "He has some beautiful kids.''