It is always the punch a fighter does not see that hurts the most, and the little girl was so sweet and innocent-looking, standing shyly at her mother's side, that there was no way Joe Frazier could have seen it coming.
The former heavyweight champion of the world was sitting under a tent on the banks of the Delaware River in Philadelphia, at a place called Penn's Landing, where his touring autograph show had set up shop at an outdoor festival. With his son Marvis, Joe trains and manages fighters out of his Broad Street gym in Philly, but he also spends an inordinate amount of time signing his name in that long, sweeping script on photographs of himself and on merchandise from his portable store. On this languid September afternoon, under a sign that announced MEET YOUR PHILLY SPORTS HEROES, flanked by stacks of SMOKIN' JOE hats ($10) and T-shirts ($23), Frazier was signing everything put in front of him, gratis, schmoozing with parents as he posed for pictures with their children and hamming it up for the cameras. He was all grins and merriment for the scores of people who had waited in the sun for an audience.
At about 2:30 p.m., Frazier looked up and saw a petite and demure 10-year-old, Ginnysue Kowalick, her head slightly bowed, standing across the table. "My daughter doesn't know you too well, Joe," said the girl's mother, Marilyn Kowalick. "She has a question, but she's too shy to ask."
Frazier nodded. "O.K.," he said.
"She wants to know if you ever beat Muhammad Ali," Marilyn said.
A scowl passed like a shadow down Frazier's face, and for a long moment he sat reeling in his chair, leaning back as his eyes rolled wildly from side to side, and he groaned, groping for words: "Agghh.... Ohhh.... Agghh...."
Alarmed at Frazier's reaction, Marilyn leaned forward and said, "I'm sorry."
At last reassembling his scattered faculties, Frazier looked at Ginnysue and said, "We locked up three times. He won two, and I won one. But look at him now. I think I won all three."
Two days earlier, at the Essex House in New York City, the object of Frazier's turbulent emotions sat folded on a couch in a suite of rooms overlooking Manhattan's Central Park. He lay back and fumbled with his third package of shortbread cookies. White crumbs speckled his black shirt—the remains of his day, the emblematic story of his life. Ali had just spent most of an afternoon signing a limited edition of large photographs that showed him, dressed in luminous white, holding the Olympic torch during the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Games in Atlanta. He was in New York for the screening of yet another documentary celebrating his life, this one a TNT production with the unlikely title, Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story.
Ali speaks in barely a whisper now, unless he has an audience, and then his voice rises raspingly, just enough to carry a room. Surrounded by a small group of fans and followers at the Essex House earlier that day, he could not resist the chance to perform. He raised his right fist in the air and said, "This is the piston that got to Liston!" He also asked the gathering, "Know what Lincoln said when he woke up from a two-day drunk?"