"Olympic gold medalist and boxing legend," reads the announcement on the Constitution Center's web page. "Outspoken fighter for religious and civil rights. Conscientious objector who took his battle to the Supreme Court and won. Ambassador for peace and justice worldwide. Tireless humanitarian and philanthropist. Even as he celebrated his 70th birthday this year, Ali has continued to break new ground as an advocate for those suffering from Parkinson's disease, a disease he has bravely battled."
"It is incredibly fitting that Muhammad Ali, a representative for the bicentennial of the Constitution, be awarded the prestigious Liberty Medal in 2012, as the nation celebrates the 225th anniversary of our founding document," former president Bill Clinton, chair of the National Constitution Center and a former winner, said in a statement. "Ali embodies the spirit of the Liberty Medal by embracing the ideals of the Constitution - freedom, self-governance, equality, and empowerment - and helping spread them across the globe."
The tone Thursday night, as it often is for Ali appearances, will be one of reverence, respect and empathy. At 70, Ali remains a living icon to many who lived through the civil rights movement of the 1960s. And to those who only know Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad through classrooms and history books, he is a lone living link to those times, his importance not argued, but noted.
Such is not the case for Smokin' Joe, who died last November at age 67 of complications from liver cancer. Taunted as a gorilla by Ali prior to their third fight in Manilla, Frazier never quite bought the contrition for those remarks Ali expressed afterward, and continued to express in the decades that followed. In interviews Frazier spoke proudly and painfully of those times and the years that followed, and was at all times perplexed by the abyss in public perception between the two, especially in the city where he lived and raised his family. He blamed Ali for equating his more traditional lifestyle as a sellout to white America, even intimated that it had affected his post-career appreciation and opportunities.
The statue, talked about since the Rocky statue was cast in 1982, is emblematic of that. Frazier never complained publicly about the likeness of a fictional movie character that stood at the entrance to the old Spectrum and now, at the Art Museum, but those who knew and loved him sure did. As Jesse Jackson said during Frazier's funeral ceremony last year, "Joe was reality. Rocky's fists are frozen in stone. Joe's fists were smokin'. Rocky never faced Ali or Holmes or Norton or Foreman. Rocky never tasted his own blood . . . Joe Frazier deserves a statue in downtown Philadelphia."
Ali attended that event, the ravages of his Parkinson's rendering him speechless. He will not speak Thursday night, organizers say, his acceptance speech instead delivered on his behalf by Lonnie, his longtime spouse. There will be dignitaries from all walks of life, and Ali's name will join a list that includes Nelson Mandela, three U.S. presidents, two Supreme Court Justices, prime ministers, rock stars and one King (Hussein).
Joe's statue? Still needing $150,000 to erect it, a website - JoeFrazierstatue.com - was launched last Friday to solicit public donations. The plan is for the statue to greet fans at the entrance of Xfinity Live! near the cluster of sports venues in South Philadelphia.
Not exactly presidents, prime ministers or kings. But Joe, if nothing else, was a man of the people.
It's another parallel track to their contentious co-existence. For in a nutshell, that's what Ali's medal is really all about. His post-career popularity enabled his philanthropy and goodwill, efforts that range from soup kitchens to hostage release, and include involvement in Make-A-Wish, Special Olympics and Parkinson research fund-raising.
And if that mouth that once put such hurt on Joe Frazier's legacy could utter even a few words Thursday night, they likely would echo the Rev. Jackson's remarks of last November.
Joe Frazier deserves a statue.
At the very least.
Contact Sam Donnellon at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @samdonnellon.
For recent columns, go to philly.com/SamDonnellon.