Frazier defined what it means to be a fighter
Muhammad Ali drew the crowds, charmed the media and stole the show. But while Ali is deservedly remembered as “The Greatest,” it was Joe Frazier who defined what being a fighter was truly about.
Frazier, who died Monday in his Philadelphia home after a fight with liver cancer, is inextricably linked in boxing history with Ali.
They competed in two of the most sensational bouts of all-time and defined an era with their fearsome rivalry.
Ali had nearly all of the physical advantages, but in the fight that remains the most significant in the sport’s history, it was Frazier who threw perhaps the perfect left hook to knock down Ali in the 15th round, punctuating a victory on March 8, 1971, in what will forever be remembered as “The Fight of the Century.”
Frazier rose from the most humble beginnings in Buford, S.C., to become a gold medalist and the world heavyweight champion, doing it through sheer will and perseverance. He fought in a classic bobbing-and-weaving style, working his way to the inside by attacking the body and then unleashing his money punch, the left hook.
He paid a heavy price to get inside, particularly in his bouts against Ali, but Frazier was fearless.
“I really and truly loved the guy,” promoter Bob Arum, who handled Ali, said. “He was a real man. He was a proud, great warrior who was everything that was great about boxing. It was one of my life’s great experiences knowing him.
“If I were in a war zone fighting against any enemy, the guy I would choose to have next to me was Joe Frazier. There was no quit in him and he was really a man.”
Frazier spent nine days in the hospital after becoming the first man to defeat Ali, and he was never the same fighter again. He went 5-4-1 in his next 10 fights, losing twice to Ali and twice to George Foreman.
He harbored a grudge against Ali that he never truly got over. Ali mercilessly taunted Frazier as he was promoting their fights, referring to him as a “gorilla” and an “Uncle Tom.” That incensed Frazier, who could never come to terms with the fact that Ali was simply trying to draw attention to his fights.
Larry Merchant, the one-time sports editor of the Philadelphia Daily News and now an HBO Sports boxing analyst, said Frazier was too proud to forgive Ali’s taunts.
“Ali, in his way of trying to market fights, had been cruel at times,” Merchant said. “We all knew that Ali was just doing a sales job, trying to promote the fights, but if you’re the target and the bullets are hitting you and you have to take them, then I guess it could be pretty hard to take. And Joe really resented him for years and years for the things Ali had said.”
Frazier took delight in Ali’s struggles with Parkinson’s syndrome that rendered the most talkative athlete ever mute.
“I did that to him,” Frazier would say to anyone who would listen.
He felt betrayed because he tried to help Ali when Ali was stripped of the heavyweight title for refusing induction into military service. Ali was exiled for three years at the peak of his powers, from 1967 to 1970, and Frazier went to bat for him in order to help him get his license back.
He went so far as to plead Ali’s case with President Nixon.
And because he felt he had done so much, he resented Ali’s taunts during the promotion of their three great fights.
They were both guaranteed $2.5 million to fight each other as unbeaten heavyweight champions in 1971 and Ali immediately waged a war of words against Frazier, who privately seethed.
“Believe me when I tell you this, Ali respected Joe an awful lot,” said Gene Kilroy, Ali’s long-time friend and former business manager. “When they signed for that fight, they made so much money and everything was guaranteed. They didn’t have to do a thing to promote it, because it wouldn’t make a difference. But Ali never met a camera he didn’t love and he began talking about Joe to anyone who would listen.
“I told Joe years later that Ali was just trying to sell the fight, but Joe said to me, ‘How do you think I feel when he calls me an Uncle Tom? My kids come home from school and tell me the other kids told them their Dad’s a gorilla.’ Joe just couldn’t get over it.”
[Photos: Remembering ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier]
Frazier nearly quit boxing in 1964 when he lost to Buster Mathis in the Olympic Trials and didn’t make the U.S. team. But when Mathis broke a hand, Frazier went to Tokyo in his place and won a gold medal.
And that was the closest to quitting Frazier ever came at anything. He was legendary for his competitive streak and for the way he pushed himself in training.
“There was nothing not to love about Joe Frazier and how hard he trained, how hard he fought and much he wanted to win,” Merchant said. “That 1971 fight is still the biggest and greatest event I ever covered and it exceeded all the extraordinary expectations that were placed upon it.”
That’s what Joe Frazier was. He was a guy who exceeded expectations.
He wasn’t the fastest or the strongest or the most athletic, but there were few who were as fearless and few who gave as much of himself in pursuit of a victory.
Ali will always be “The Greatest,” but his biggest rival was plenty great, too.
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