Dead Folks 2011: Sports
Boxer Joe Frazier was the perfect foil for Muhammad Ali. Unlike Ali, the blue-collar Frazier was a man of few words. The fighter was the perpetual target of Ali’s taunts and insults, calling Frazier ignorant and saying he resembled a gorilla. Ali even labeled Frazier’s black supporters as “Uncle Toms.” Unable to forget the humiliation, Frazier remained angry at Ali for most of his life.
Frazier got a job at a slaughterhouse in Philadelphia at age 16. He stayed in shape by punching slabs of beef while on the clock. Known as Smokin’ Joe Frazier, the fighter’s style was to stalk opponents around the ring, staying close to them to relentlessly throw jabs to tire them out. After retirement, he had a brief career as a bad singer, and could often be seen on TV struggling through the national anthem at some ball game.
But he’ll be forever linked to Ali. Frazier won their first fight in 1971 and then lost to Ali in 1974 and 1975. The only other two losses in Frazier’s career were to George Foreman. Frazier was keenly aware that he and Ali needed one another to captivate the American public. The two warriors were the giants who put heavyweight championship bouts back in the realm of popular sports. Frazier once told the New York Times, “Ali always said I would be nothing without him. But who would he have been without me?” Their third meeting, “The Thrilla in Manila,” is considered by many as the greatest boxing match in history. Immediately after winning the grueling bout, Ali said the fight was “the closest you can be to death.” (67, liver cancer) —ER
Despite being one of the Indycar Series’ top drivers and personalities, 2005 Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon found himself without a sponsored race team in 2011. The cheerful, charismatic British racer quickly landed a couple of other jobs in the meantime, however. Wheldon was an engaging and insightful commentator on TV broadcasts of Indycar races. His other job was that of primary test driver for the revolutionary and purportedly safer 2012 Indycar, which features fenders covering the rear tires—a design that might have saved Wheldon’s life.
Dan Wheldon finally found a team in time for the 2011 Indianapolis 500, where he stunned the racing world when he captured his second Indianapolis 500 victory when rookie and race leader J.R. Hildebrand hit the wall 2,000 feet from the finish line. It was Wheldon’s first race of the season. Five months later he was killed in a 15-car wreck on the 12th lap of a 200-lap race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the last event of the Indycar season. One of his front tires ran over a rear wheel on Paul Tracy’s car, sending Wheldon’s racecar airborne for 300 feet before his car caught the catch-fence and his head hit a supporting fence pole. Starting from last place, he would have won $5 million had he won the Las Vegas race. There had been apprehension from veteran drivers about fielding 34 racecars on the high-banked oval track (usually the field consisted of 20 to 25 cars.). Drivers with little experience at such speeds were also to be feared. Wheldon was the first open-wheel driver killed on a track since Paul Dana crashed in 2006 while warming up for the season opener in Florida. Wheldon went on to win that race.
The afternoon Wheldon was killed, however, the race was never resumed. Drivers slowly drove five laps as “Danny Boy” was played at the speedway. In a blog he was writing for USA Today, Wheldon had predicted the following: “It’s going to be a pack race, and you never know how that’s going to turn out.” He added that it would be “an amazing show” with “pure entertainment.” (33, auto racing crash) —ER
Bubba Smith finished his NFL career in 1976 and soon learned that was a great time for a massive football star to move into popular culture. The former number one draft pick found lots of showbiz work as a 6’7″ punch line. He easily stood out amongst the slew of pro players drafted into the Miller Lite Beer television commercials, where Smith tore the top off a brew while declaring his love for the “easy opening cans.” Smith also made the rounds of sitcoms and detective shows. He got his biggest break just as other pro athletes saw their ’70s fame begin to fade, providing and imposing presence in 1984′s Police Academy as Cadet Moses Hightower; he would continue as Officer Hightower in five of the six sequels. (66, heart disease and diet pill overdose) —JRT
Randy “Macho Man” Savage
Savage was one of professional wrestling’s most flamboyant stars during the 1980s and ’90s, sporting oversized sunglasses, sequined robes, and neon spandex. Known as the “Macho Man,” Savage’s real name was Lanny Poffo. The wrestler often entered the ring to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance.” His signature move was a flying elbow drop off the top rope as he hurled himself onto an opponent. As a spokesman for Slim Jim snacks, Savage wore cowboy outfits away from the ring. He was as adept at playing a “heel” (bad guy) in the ring as he was a “face” (good guy). His colleagues said that the secret to being a good pro wrestler is the art of improv as an entertainer and the ability to read a crowd. Savage was a master at both. (58, car wreck) —ER