Sometimes a city needs a strong mayor -- especially if he's planning to take on the former heavyweight champion of the world.
In recent months, Memphis mayor Willie Herenton has been in training to fight 62-year-old Smokin' Joe Frazier this week at The Peabody. The duo is expected to duke it out in three one-minute rounds to raise money for the Shelby County Drug Court, a program that treats non-violent drug offenders and has a 77 percent non-recidivism rate.
Vegas odds are on Frazier, but it's not as if Herenton is a stranger to the ring -- and he's certainly not afraid of a fight. An amateur boxing champion in his teens, Herenton once asked Councilman Brent Taylor if he wanted to step outside during a particularly heated committee meeting. (Sure, Taylor's no Muhammad Ali, but still.)
With the national media taking notice of the story, I'm reminded that a city can be made or mangled by its mayors. They are the public face of the city.
A few weeks ago, late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel was scheduled to interview Justin Timberlake. One of his staffers called me wanting to know if I had any pictures from Justin's Good Morning America appearance on Beale Street. Specifically, they wanted photos of Herenton getting booed.
I didn't have any but admitted that some Memphians weren't huge fans. Personally, I've always had mixed feelings about Herenton. I respect his vision for the city, but I've found his arrogance off-putting.
I have mixed feelings about this boxing situation, as well. Do we really want our mayor participating in the "real world" equivalent of Fear Factor?
What's next? The City Council takes on the County Commission, WWE tag-team-style, to pay for vector control? County trustee Bob Patterson designs a line of hats to benefit tax freezes for senior citizens?
However crazy the idea seems, the fight is representative of everything Herenton is and could be. The best mayors are visionaries, natural leaders, and larger than life. Herenton is those things. He's willing to risk damage to his pride and ego (and, in this very literal case, his body) to do his share.
Scarlett Crews, president of the Shelby County Drug Court Foundation, says a board member brought up the idea of getting Frazier involved. "He knew Frazier did charity events. He wouldn't get in the ring but would show up and sign autographs," says Crews. "Memphis is a boxing town. We thought Joe was great, but we weren't sure that would be enough of a draw."
Then they thought about having Herenton box him -- only the mayor thought they were joking. "After he realized we were serious, he said something like, 'If Joe Frazier will do it, I'll do it.' He had to then," says Crews. She expects the fight to raise $100,000, about a fifth of the program's yearly budget.
More often than people give him credit for, Herenton is willing to take one (or even more than one) for the team. In past years, he's been the first one to talk openly about Shelby County's migration problem and has pushed for controversial changes, such as restructuring the local school systems, all the while knowing it would affect his popularity. Maybe that's ego or a messiah complex, but he doesn't pull punches when it comes to what he believes is in the city's best interest.
Herenton might go down Thursday, but he'll go down swinging.