BIRTHDAYS SHOULD be happy occasions, a time to spend quality time with family and friends, to blow out candles on a cake, maybe even to receive some presents.
But not all birthdays are created equal, as the continuing disparity in the level of public recognition accorded former heavyweight champions Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier this month demonstrates.
Ali turns 65 tomorrow, and the date will be observed with a smorgasbord of tributes. ESPN Classic, in fact, got an early jump on the party, beginning 52 hours of programming on Sunday. Tomorrow, though, it's all Ali all the time, with a 24-hour marathon on the cable channel whose mission seemingly is preservation of the Ali legacy.
Replays of seven Ali bouts - 1964, Sonny Liston I; 1965, Liston II and Floyd Patterson I; 1966, George Chuvalo; 1974, George Foreman; 1975, Chuck Wepner and Frazier III - will be televised in their entirety, to be followed by "Ali Rap," a recent ESPN special; "Ali's Dozen," a compilation of Ali's best and most important rounds; and "Ali's 65," an ode that dwells on Ali's effect on society.
"No one represents what ESPN Classic is all about more than Muhammad Ali," said John Papa, Classic's vice president of programming.
You might have noticed that one Ali bout that won't be televised is his March 8, 1971, showdown with Frazier in Madison Square Garden, the opening act in their three-part passion play that arguably was the most anticipated boxing match of all-time. In that pairing of undefeated superstars, Smokin' Joe floored Ali with a leaping left hook in the 15th round, the exclamation point to his unanimous-decision victory.
An oversight? Or is Ali's legend-sustaining machinery served only by tapes that reveal him in the most favorable light?
Papa said Ali-Frazier I can't be shown on ESPN Classic because ESPN does not own the rights to that fight. Fair enough.
Still, there sometimes appears to be a revisionist history, one in which Ali's stature continues to expand even as Frazier's contracts. And it shouldn't be that way. These two warriors engaged in boxing's most riveting rivalry, which should have ensured ring immortality for both in near-equal measures.
Instead, on Jan. 12, Frazier turned 63 to little or no fanfare.
"It's always that way," Pete Lyde, Frazier's son-in-law, said of the widening gap in the way Ali and Frazier are perceived.
Lyde said he hoped to put together a "private event" for Smokin' Joe's family and friends, "maybe a couple of hundred people" at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, but it didn't come off.
"I'd like to do something really nice for him, maybe black-tie, at some point," Lyde said. "If anyone deserves it, it's him."
But while a meaningful celebration of Frazier's place among boxing's greatest champions remains on the drawing board, Ali has been more recognized and saluted than any king or potentate.
The multimillion-dollar Muhammad Ali Center, in Ali's hometown of Louisville, Ky., was the site of a 1-year anniversary gala on Nov. 19, 2006, with 7,000 in attendance.
Ali has been lionized in a 1996 documentary, "When We Were Kings," which details his '74 upset of Foreman, and in a 2001 feature film, "Ali," which starred Philadelphia native Will Smith in the title role. Another documentary, "Louisville's Own Ali," has been shot.
Make no mistake, Ali's journey has been an incredible one. We might not see his like in boxing again. He left the footprints of a giant, and it seems impossible that the lithe, loud athlete of our memories is now a quaking sexagenarian afflicted by Parkinson's disease.
Perhaps Frazier has served to damage his own cause with a bitterness that traces back to the 1970s, when Ali belittled him, unfairly, as a "gorilla" and an "Uncle Tom." The verbal jabs stung Frazier, more than Ali's jabs inside the ropes, and the hard feelings that sprang from the feud linger to this day.
When Ali came out to light the Olympic flame in Atlanta in 1996, Frazier remarked, "I wish I could have pushed him into the fire."
It's good public relations for Frazier to settle his decades-old beef with Ali, who has become a cherished figure, especially when viewed through the soft lenses afforded him by ESPN Classic and others. A year or so ago, Frazier vowed to reconcile with Ali, but it's apparently difficult to reverse 30-plus years of animosity.
And it's not just Ali who's a thorn pricking Smokin' Joe's pride. A statue of the fictional Rocky Balboa now permanently sits at the base of the Art Museum steps. Ask most people around the world to name the figure who best exemplifies Philadelphia's rich boxing history, and they're apt to say Rocky.
Meanwhile, there is no statue of Joe Frazier to be found in Philly, where he has lived since he was 16.
But Frazier's displacement by Sylvester Stallone's celluloid creation is another story for another day. This tale of two January birthdays, one largely ignored by the masses and another lovingly presented for public inspection, reminds us that history is not always an accurate accounting. More often, it's what the most compelling storytellers get succeeding generations to believe.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam reflected on a battle Frazier is unlikely to win.
"Technically the loser of two of the three fights, he seems not to understand that they ennobled him as much as they did Ali, that the only way we know of Ali's greatness is because of Frazier's equivalent greatness, that in the end there is no real difference between them as fighters," Halberstam wrote.
Yesterday was the 42nd birthday of another Philly fave, longtime former middleweight champ Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins. *
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