Joe Frazier, whose first fight with Muhammad Ali—an event that attracted worldwide attention–sealed his legacy as one of the defining American sports figures of the last 50 years, died of liver cancer on November 7th, 2011. He was 67 years old.
Although Frazier was heavyweight champion from 1968 to 1973, he will certainly be remembered most for his vicious trilogy with Ali, one marked by malice, anguish, and regret.
Frazier and Ali first swapped punches on March 8, 1971, in a fight that transcended sports and became a social and political happening. Among the luminaries seated at ringside in New York City that night were Hubert Humphrey, Joe Louis, Woody Allen, Diana Ross, the Kennedys, J. Edgar Hoover, David Frost, Alan Shepard, and Joe DiMaggio. Even El Cordobés was there. Burt Lancaster did commentary for the closed-circuit audience and Frank Sinatra, on assignment for Life magazine, took photos from the ring apron. “This is the biggest event in the history of the planet Earth,” Ali said, only half-joking about “The Fight of the Century.”
In retirement, Frazier seemed like a man chased by ghosts. Overshadowed by the legend surrounding the charismatic Ali, Frazier felt that his own legacy was diminished, and he bristled at having his accomplishments undermined. His seething rivalry with Ali went far beyond boxing and over the years, developed into a sports tragedy with a dramatis personae of two. “Joe Frazier truly despised Ali,” wrote Ferdie Pacheco.
In the ring, Frazier embodied the hard-earned dignity unique to prizefighters who cannot—or will not—separate boxing from such concepts as honor, pride and respect.
“I guess you could say I was just about always the underdog,” Frazier told the Philadelphia Daily News. “But all that just makes me work harder. It makes me love harder.”
Born on January 12, 1944, and raised in a shack in Beaufort, South Carolina, among palmettos and the long shadow of Jim Crow, Joseph William Frazier began toiling on the barren family farm by the time he was five years old. One of 12 children, Frazier also picked vegetables at 15 cents a crate and helped his father, a sharecropper, run white lightning. Even then his life was hard labor, prefiguring the grueling career ahead of him, and Frazier seemed to be on a fast-track to callused middle-age. “I quit school after the ninth grade,” he told Dave Anderson in 1971. “I wasn’t learning anything. I was just there taking space. I had the mind of a man early. You name it—outlook, girls, bread. I was chasing girls when I was 13. I was married at 16. When I was in school, I’d go into the class and look at the teacher’s legs.”
Not long after dropping out of school, Frazier hopped on a Greyhound headed east to live with relatives in Brooklyn. Already married and a father, Frazier soon moved to Philadelphia, where he worked long hours in a slaughterhouse, sharpening his left hook on hanging sides of beef, an idiosyncrasy Sylvester Stallone would appropriate for his film character, Rocky Balboa. A few short years later, Frazier, who took up boxing at a local PAL to lose weight, was in Japan competing in the 1964 Olympics. Incredibly, as a replacement for an injured Buster Mathis, Frazier won a gold medal, defeating Hans Huber by decision in the finals despite fighting with a broken thumb.
Frazier returned from Tokyo with his medal, empty pockets and vague dreams of becoming the heavyweight champion of the world. With the help of Philadelphia businessman Bruce Baldwin, a syndicate of sporting shareholders formed a group called Cloverlay to back Frazier as he pursued his career.
Under the tutelage of Yank Durham and, later, Eddie Futch, Frazier became the most destructive heavyweight force to emerge since the grisly heyday of Sonny Liston and a throwback to the freight train style of Jack Dempsey. Pure aggression in the ring, “Smokin’” Joe tore after opponents at the sound of the opening bell, wielding one of the deadliest weapons in boxing: a left hook whose cruel torque had been partially perfected by a broken arm suffered in his youth. His arm had been poorly set and when it healed, it remained slightly crooked.
From 1967 to 1971, Frazier cut a swath of terror through the heavyweight ranks. Among the notable fighters he defeated were George Chuvalo, Manuel Ramos, Bob Foster, Buster Mathis, Oscar Bonavena, Doug Jones, Jerry Quarry, Eddie Machen and Jimmy Ellis. Frazier did not only beat these fighters but, for the most part, demolished them. Jones retired. Quarry was pummeled before losing via cuts. Chuvalo suffered a broken orbital bone. Machen never won another fight. Neither Foster nor Ellis knew they had each been decked more than once. Ramos, who had never been stopped until he had the misfortune of answering the bell against Frazier, hit the skids running and never looked back, winning only four of his next 27 bouts and suffering nine knockouts along the way to nowhere fast. Out of all the contenders Frazier met, only Bonavena, tough as whalebone, managed to last the distance.
Even then, however, Muhammad Ali, who had lost his title in the grimy backrooms of boxing commissions, was beginning to dog Frazier. A crowd of protesters gathered outside Madison Square Garden the night Frazier knocked out Buster Mathis for the New York State version of the heavyweight title. They gathered on behalf of Ali, whom they considered the true world champion. Unifying the division in 1970 by beating Ellis, who had won an elimination tournament to determine the WBA champion, did little to earn Frazier the respect he felt he deserved. Although he was undefeated and a gate attraction in New York City, Frazier knew that he would have to face Muhammad Ali to silence his detractors.
If Ali was boxing’s transcendent counter-cultural icon, darling of the jet set and the bourgeoning radical chic movement, then Frazier was its John Henry, steel-driving his way through the hardest sport of all with strength, determination, will, and an almost pathological zeal for training.
But it was Ali who drew headlines and caused commotion wherever he went. Stripped of his livelihood in 1967 for refusing induction into the Vietnam War, Ali lost three-and-a-half years of his athletic prime before returning to the ring—and to a different world–in 1970. “Politics had banned him from the ring and politics brought him back,” wrote Robert Lipsyte. “As more Americans caught up with Ali’s antiwar sentiments, his refusal to be drafted seemed less like dodging than standing up for principle.” After being granted a license to fight in Atlanta while his conviction for draft evasion was under appeal, Ali returned to the ring on October 26, 1970 and stopped Quarry in three rounds. When a court order allowed Ali to fight again in New York City, he scored a 15th-round TKO over Bonavena and immediately targeted Joe Frazier as his next opponent.
Frazier and Ali agreed to meet in Madison Square Garden with both men guaranteed $2.5 million each, an outlandish sum of money in 1971. No sooner was the fight announced than Ali began to hurl insults at Frazier. “Joe Frazier is too ugly to be champ,” he said. “Joe Frazier is too dumb to be champ. The heavyweight champion should be smart and pretty like me. Ask Joe Frazier, ‘How do you feel, Champ?’ He’ll say, ‘Duh, duh, duh.’” He called Frazier “The Great White Hope” and an “Uncle Tom.”
Frazier had no chance against Ali outside of the ring. With his jive esoterica, impish doggerel, and outlandish persona, Ali was simply too glib for the quiet, hardworking man who had grown up dirt poor on a subsistence farm. In addition, Frazier was going up against the zeitgeist. Vilified during the mid-1960s, Ali returned to the spotlight in the wake of My Lai, Helter Skelter, Altamont, and the first draft lottery since World War II. Against the near-Apocalyptic chaos of National Guard deployments, the Civil Rights revolution, political assassinations, the Catch.22 quagmire of the Vietnam War and one raging riot after another, Muhammad Ali rose out of the ashes to become a symbol of courage and righteous rebellion. “After a while, how you stood on Ali became a political and generational litmus test,” Bryant Gumbel explained to Thomas Hauser. “He was somebody we could hold on to, somebody who was ours. And fairly or unfairly, because he was opposing Ali, Joe Frazier became the symbol of our oppressors.”
Later, Ali would say he was only trying to promote the fight to ensure its box office success, but the cruelty of his taunts could not be shrugged off—at least not by Joe Frazier. No longer was his bout with Ali simply a sporting event; to Frazier, it was about revenge. “He had me stunned,” Frazier told William Nack in 1996. “This guy was a buddy. I remember looking at him and thinkin’, What’s wrong with this guy? Has he gone crazy? He called me an ‘Uncle Tom.’ For a guy who did as much for him as I did, that was cruel. I grew up like the black man—he didn’t. I cooked the liquor. I cut the wood. I worked the farm. I lived in the ghetto. Yes, I ‘tommed.’ When he wanted me to help him get a license, I ‘tommed’ for him. For him! He betrayed my friendship. He called me stupid. He said I was so ugly that my mother ran and hid when she gave birth to me. I was shocked. I sat down and I said to myself, I’m gonna kill him. OK? Simple as that. I’m gonna kill him!”
But the heated political and racial overtones soon began to take on a dangerous cast as well. Frazier received death threats, and when he arrived in New York he was assigned a security detail led by NYPD detective Joe Coffey, who refused to let Frazier do his roadwork. “I couldn’t allow it,” Coffey told The Ring in 1992. “He would have been too vulnerable. So he’d put on his rubber suit and he’d run in place and shadowbox in the room. We turned the Pierre Hotel into a gym.” Frazier’s children were also threatened and remained in Philadelphia with bodyguards. For his part, Ali arrived at the weigh-in at Madison Square Garden with a police escort to help him navigate the chaotic streets, overrun by fans, protesters and assorted midtown loonies. His team was so worried about the mob that Ali that was not allowed to leave Madison Square Garden and spent the next 10 hours in the press room, resting on a cot.
Although Frazier could not compete against Ali’s wit, between the ropes and under the hot lights, he was more than enough to handle the self-proclaimed “King of the World.” After 15 pitiless rounds, 45 minutes of mayhem couched in sporting terms, Frazier earned a unanimous decision over Ali in Madison Square Garden before 20,455 fans and an estimated worldwide audience of over 300 million. Joe Frazier had won “The Fight of the Century” but he had to be helped back to his corner after the final bell. When he hobbled out of the ring that night, Frazier, like Ali, left behind pieces of himself that could not be recovered. He was in and out of the hospital for weeks after the fight. Frazier would never be the same fighter again.
On January 22, 1973, he was brutalized by George Foreman in a little over five minutes in Kingston, Jamaica. It was a fight no one associated with Frazier wanted to see take place, and one that Frazier did not train particularly hard for. “There was too much partying going on,” Eddie Futch told Ronald K. Fried. “It was the wintertime and he was down there in the balmy Jamaica atmosphere and the jetsetters from New York and from Philadelphia had come down to the hotel…and there was just a big party going on.” Against the implacable Foreman, who entered the bout with 34 knockouts in 37 fights and no defeats, Frazier hit the canvas six times before referee Arthur Mercante finally stopped the carnage.
After a points win over Joe Bugner in London, Frazier and Ali met again in a rematch that fell far short of the original. Before the bout, however, Frazier and Ali continued their hostilities, brawling on the set during a televised interview with Howard Cosell. They hit the floor in a heap after Ali had called Frazier ignorant and during the scrum, Frazier tried to twist off Ali’s foot. The fight itself was not nearly as interesting. On January 28, 1974, Ali and Frazier met in Madison Square Garden for a second time in a dull waltz marred by referee Tony Perez and by the spoiling tactics of Ali, who won an uneventful decision over 12 rounds.
When Frazier and Ali met for the final chapter of their blood feud, this time in Quezon City on October 1, 1975, they saw their vendetta played out with less skill but, incredibly, more ferocity than ever before. Again, Ali brought his special brand of wordy malice to the promotion, calling Frazier a “gorilla” and referring to Frazier as “the only nigger in the world ain’t got no rhythm.” Ali also carried around a small rubber gorilla, a prop he quickly named “Joe” and abused with a flourish. While Ali mocked, Frazier fumed. “It’s real hatred,” he said. “I want to hurt him.”
They were hollow men in the ring that October morning, no less so for the fury with which they battled. Despite their diminished physical resources, they revealed, once again, the terrible beauty of prizefighting. The “Thrilla in Manila” was a CliffsNotes for sadism. For 12 grisly rounds, both men took turns hammering at each other until it seemed as if only one outcome was possible. Fittingly for a fight that resembled an inferno, there was no air conditioning in the Araneta Coliseum. “Never before in my 40 years of boxing involvement had I experienced heat like this,” wrote Ferdie Pacheco. “I survived the corner work by wearing a towel that was soaked in cold water and filled with ice cubes on the top of my head.”
Finally, when Frazier began having difficulty seeing out of his swollen left eye, Ali rallied in the 13th, and in the 14th, he landed combinations that staggered Frazier all over the ring until, mercifully, the bell rang to end the round. On his stool, battered and weary, Frazier remonstrated with a concerned Futch, who was ready to intervene. Across the ring in the opposite corner, Ali sat slumped, arms outstretched and draped over the ropes, being tended to by his trainer, Angelo Dundee, ready to yield. Years later, Wali Muhammad recalled the moment for Thomas Hauser: “After the 14th round, Ali came back to the corner and told us, “Cut ‘em off.” That’s how tired he was. He wanted us to cut his gloves off. And Angelo ignored him.” Futch, however, could not ignore how badly hurt Frazier was. He signaled to referee Carlos Padilla and the fight was over. So, too, was one of the fiercest rivalries in sports history. Frazier would never forgive Futch and in the years to come he would disparage his former trainer at every turn. “Don’t talk to me about Eddie Futch,” Frazier said. “He became a big hero with the press. Such a caring man. Don’t talk to me about him.”
Even after the pain and disappointment of Manila, Frazier continued fighting. To make matters worse, Frazier, whose poor eyesight was not yet common knowledge, entered the ring for some of his last fights wearing contact lenses. Eight months after losing to Ali, Frazier squared off against George Foreman once again. In the prizefight netherworld of Uniondale, New York, Frazier was again mauled by Foreman, who dropped him twice in the fifth round, sending him staggering into retirement. A restless Frazier returned in 1981 and fought to an ugly draw against an ex-felon named Floyd “Jumbo” Cummings in a fiasco staged in Chicago. Finally, Frazier, then 37, retired from the ring for good.
There are few happy endings in boxing. Most fighters struggle in their post-fight years and Frazier was no exception. He drank excessively. His marriage crumbled. He was arrested for DWI—a charge he later beat—and suffered from a variety of illnesses–hepatitis, high blood pressure, diabetes—and a car accident in 1989 left him with chronic back pain for the rest of his life.
Frazier tried his luck as a trainer but even boxing was no longer good to him. In 1984, his son, Marvis, was knocked out in the first round by Larry Holmes in a suicidal title shot, and Joe Frazier Jr., a talented welterweight, saw his potential undercut by drug abuse and prison time.
Eventually, Frazier also lost his fortune, and by the late 1990s, he was living above his gym on North Broad Street in Philadelphia.
Oh, there were good times too, of course, because Joe Frazier was a lively man, one who enjoyed a party and being recognized in public. He worked the trade shows, hammed it up for the WWF, toured with his R&B band, starred in television commercials, made cameo appearances in a few films, and gave his time to several charitable organizations. He was also a tireless signer of autographs and always had a moment for his admirers.
At times, however, there was a melancholy air around him, a darkness. Burt Watson, once Frazier’s business manager, told of Frazier’s bitterness toward Ali in an interview with Mark Kram more than 20 years after Manila. “For a long time, I didn’t understand what was eating at him, then I did. Ali doesn’t know how deep he cut into Joe. You don’t do to a man what he did to Joe where we come from…to Joe, it was total betrayal by Ali. The acclaim Ali gets eats at him. Joe is the only legend still disrespected. Ali robbed him of who he is. To a lot of people in this city, Joe’s still ignorant, slow-speaking, dumb and ugly. The tag never leaves him. Ali can’t even talk and he’s still the prize.”
For nearly 30 years, Frazier brooded over Ali. Affable in public and at memorabilia signings, Frazier found it difficult to be gracious about the man who had caused him so much anguish. Taking credit for Ali being a trembling hulk of a man afflicted by Parkinsonism is Richter Scale-hatred, yes, and Joe Frazier could not withhold his rage. Years ago, a drunken Frazier had to be kept away from Ali by George Foreman and Larry Holmes at a function. “Truth is,” he once said, “I’d like to rumble with that sucker again—beat him up piece-by-piece and mail him back to Jesus.” He also wanted, he said, to push Ali into the Olympic flame when “The Greatest” lit it during the opening ceremonies in 1996. In a similar grim vein, Frazier told Mark Kram, “If we were twins in the belly of our mama, I’d reach over and strangle him.”
Finally, in 2001, Frazier made a public overture for peace. It was the kind of peace that had eluded him for more than half his life. In the end, only Frazier knew if he had actually found it.
Joe Frazier had a career record of 32-4-1, with 27 knockouts. When Frazier revealed that he had been nearly blind in his left eye throughout his fighting days–the result of a cataract–he instantly turned a distinguished career into some sort of sporting miracle.
From 1968 to 1971, with Ali in exile, Frazier was the dominant heavyweight force in boxing and when Ali returned to settle matters once and for all, it was Frazier who won. The Ring rated Frazier the top-ranked heavyweight in the world for six consecutive years—from 1967 to 1972—a distinction few fighters can claim. Frazier was also voted The Ring “Fighter of the Year” three times. He was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990 as part of the inaugural class of inductees.
Although Frazier often seemed bitter about his legacy, he was well aware of what he had accomplished—even if others were not. In an article published to commemorate the 20th anniversary of “The Fight of the Century,” Frazier told The Ring, “I just love knowing I did what I did.”
So do we, Joe. So do we.
This article originally appeared on Maxboxing.com.