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Sunday Stupid: Joe Frazier, the Bizarro-Aquaman

November 9, 2014

There’s always a debate among fans of professional sports about which athletes are the best athletes. A tangent of this never-ending argument is whether or not skills in one sport can translate to another. Could Lebron James be a wide receiver in the NFL? Could Michael Jordan play baseball? (Kind of, but not really, as it turned out.) There was an actual TV show that once sought to answer these questions: ABC’s Superstars, which took athletes from every sport known to man and lumped them together in neutral contests of speed, stamina and agility.

And this was the show that nearly killed Smokin’ Joe Frazier.

The beauty of Superstars was that no athlete could compete in his own field (no pun) of endeavor: a track athlete couldn’t run the 100M, for instance. And, say, a champion boxer couldn’t step into the ring and pummel a scrawny marathoner within an inch of his life. So the late, great Joe Frazier, dauntless foil of Muhammad Ali and a participant in the inaugural 1973 Superstars event, was going to have to go out of his comfort zone and compete in events where fists were irrelevant. Okay, on the face of it no worries — Joe’s got this. One of the events that he elected to participate in was the 5oM swimming race, where he was pitted against race car driver Peter Revson (appropriate last name, no?), gold medalist skier John-Claude Killey and pole-vaulter Bob Seagren (the eventual winner of this first Superstars competition).

The problem was that Frazier forgot to tell anyone that he couldn’t swim. Not just that he was a bad swimmer, mind you. That he really couldn’t swim. And the result was the hilarity in the embedded YouTube video above, preserved for all time in cyberspace.

There are several things that make the clip interesting beyond the near drowning of one of the greatest pugilists of all time, not the least of which is legendary sportscaster Jim McKay snickering slightly when introducing the nervous-looking Frazier before his heat. (Either these intros were dubbed after the race, or McKay had some inside info that this wasn’t going to end well.) There’s Frazier disappearing out of frame about one second into the heat. There’s him hewing close to the lane rope, like a it’s castaway’s lifeline. There’s McKay’s commentary applauding Frazier’s competitive spirit, like he’s some poor benchwarming wretch put into a high school basketball game during garbage time. There’s the camera finally giving up and cutting away with him still a quarter of the way from the end — just as the broadcast shifts to audience shots, you can see Frazier pretty much throw up his hands in surrender. (This may have been the first time that a swim meet ever needed an aquatic rescue.)

Of course poor Joe wasn’t alone in his swimming difficulties, as many of us sink like stones as soon as we leave dry land. Even supposed Olympians have had their issues. And he wasn’t the last great athlete to lay an egg when stepping out of his comfort zone. But man. Man oh man.

When he emerged from the pool, Joe told the interviewer that he had never been swimming before in his life. When asked why he then chose swimming as one of the Superstars events to participate in, he answered simply that he’d never know whether he could swim if he didn’t try. Which is admirably forthright, when you think about it. But it would seem clear, as clear as freshly chlorined water, that the answer was a resounding NO.

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