During his exile Ali, who had to earn his money on the college lecture circuit, began to knock at Frazier's door, seeking help to get back his license to fight, saying that an Ali-Frazier match would make them both rich. "He'd come to the gym and call me on the telephone," says Frazier. "He just wanted to work with me for the publicity so he could get his license back. One time, after the Ellis fight, I drove him from Philadelphia to New York City in my car. Me and him. We talked about how much we were going to make out of our fight. We were laughin' and havin' fun. We were friends, we were great friends. I said, 'Why not? Come on, man, let's do it!' He was a brother. He called me Joe: 'Hey, Smokin' Joe!' In New York we were gonna put on this commotion."
For Ali, the most gifted carnival barker in the history of sports, the commotion was father to the promotion. So when Frazier stopped his car in midtown Manhattan and walked into a store to buy a pair of shoes, Ali leaped out, his eyes bulging, and cried, "It's Joe Frazier, ladies and gentlemen! Smokin' Joe! There he is! He's got my title! I want my title! He ain't the champ, he's the chump. I'm the people's champ!"
Frazier, a proud and soft-spoken rural Southerner, had never witnessed anything like this. It rattled him at first. Butch Lewis, a companion of Frazier's and later a promoter himself, explained to him what Ali was doing: "He's not disrespecting you. This is Ali! This is what will make the payday. This is not personal."
Lewis says the men shared more than anyone knows. Frazier knew that Ali was in need of money. On at least two occasions, Lewis says, Frazier slipped Ali cash when he needed it, once giving him $2,000 to pay an overdue bill at the City Squire Motor Inn in New York City. But now Ali was dabbing curare on the tip of his rhetoric.
All through Ali's youth in Louisville and his early years as a champion, he had been a blend of his chesty, arrogant, yakety-yak father, Cassius Clay Sr., and his gentle, uncommonly sweet mother, Odessa. "Ali is softhearted and generous to a fault," says his former fight doctor, Ferdie Pacheco. "Essentially a sweet guy whose whole demeanor aims to amuse, to entertain and be liked." Yet there was a period in Ali's life, after he revealed that he had joined the separatist Black Muslims in 1964, when that side of his personality disappeared—"when he was not particularly pleasant to anyone," says Pacheco, recalling the two years before Ali's exile, when he fought Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell. "He was a hateful guy."
Neither Patterson nor Terrell would call him Ali—they used what he called his "slave name," Cassius Clay—and so in the ring he played with each of them as a cat would with a wounded mouse, keeping them alive to torture them. "What's my name?" he demanded of them as he landed his punches at will. Goodman, who was Terrell's publicist then, says, "He gave Ernie a merciless beating around the eyes. Ernie had double vision for a long time."
If Ali emerged from his exile years a softer man, as many contend, he had not forgotten how to sting and wound an opponent. "There was an awful mean streak in Ali," says Dave Wolf, then one of Frazier's confidants. "He did to Joe verbally what he did to Terrell physically."
The Ali who had laughed and bantered with Frazier, who had raised all that good-natured commotion in Manhattan, now appeared to be a man transformed—stripped of his disguise. "Joe Frazier is too ugly to be champ," Ali said. "Joe Frazier is too dumb to be champ. The heavyweight champion should be smart and pretty, like me. Ask Joe Frazier, 'How do you feel, champ?' He'll say, 'Duh, duh, duh.' " That played to the most insidious racial stereotype, the dumb and ugly black man, but Ali reached further: "Joe Frazier is an Uncle Tom." And further: "Ninety-eight percent of my people are for me. They identify with my struggle.... If I win, they win. I lose, they lose. Anybody black who thinks Frazier can whup me is an Uncle Tom."
In fact, because of Ali's work for racial justice and because of the sacrifices he made in his stand against the Vietnam War, the vast majority of blacks—as well as an increasing number of whites—saw his battles as theirs and were drawn to him as a force for social change. The most prominent voices of the 1960s, a decade torn by conflict and rebellion, had been silenced. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was dead. Bobby Kennedy was dead. Senator Eugene McCarthy had drifted like a blip off the screen. Ali alone remained alive in the ruins—the most commanding voice for and symbol of the decade's causes.
In the months leading up to the fight, he brought to bear all the horsepower of his eloquence. His demeaning of Frazier, Ali now says, had but one purpose: "To sell tickets." Of course, Frazier says there was no need to sell anything, because their purses were guaranteed, but this argument ignores the fact that Ali was always selling more than tickets. The consummate performer, he was selling himself. And there are those who say that Ali's rhetoric was merely a part of his act, the tappety-tap-tap of his every-day walking shtick. But whatever compelled him to violate all canons of fairness and decency in his portrayal of Frazier—whether it was meanness, bravado or a calculated plan to enrage and rattle his opponent—he succeeded in isolating Frazier from the black community.