“I heard somethin’ once. When somebody asked a marathon runner what goes through his mind in the last mile or two, he said that you ask yourself why am I doin’ this. You get so tired. It takes so much out of you mentally. It changes you. It makes you go a little insane. I was thinkin’ that at the end. Why am I doin’ this? What am I doin’ here in against this beast of a man? It’s so painful. I must be crazy. I always bring out the best in the men I fight, but Joe Frazier, I’ll tell the world right now, brings out the best in me. I’m gonna tell ya, that’s one helluva man, and God bless him.”
• Muhammad Ali, the morning after the Thrilla in Manila, October 1975
When I was a kid, Joe Frazier was my favorite boxer. At that time, I hated Muhammad Ali – I had never seen him fight, and I had absolutely no appreciation for his talent or his role in history. But hey, I was only 9 years old – what did I know?
As a fighter, Joe Frazier was indeed a “beast of a man.” To a young kid, he looked positively invulnerable as he blasted through the heavyweight division, at that time still sans Ali. Whether it was George Chuvalo, or Buster Mathis, or Jerry Quarry, or Jimmy Ellis – none of them stood a chance against the ferocity of Frazier. Bobbing and weaving, avoiding the best anyone had to offer, and then the left hook striking like a cobra, and more often than not the opponent was on his back, looking up at the lights of the arena.
But always in the shadows, there was Ali. The Ali who returned to the ring in 1970; the Ali who could recite poetry and spin a yarn in ways that Frazier could only imagine. And eventually, the Ali who would taunt Frazier mercilessly, as if he were somehow less than human. That only fueled the fury of Frazier, and led to what was justifiably called the Fight of the Century. And thus began a trilogy of terror that would cement the names of both men in the annals of sports history, but also alter their lives immeasurably through the pain that each would inflict on the other.
Frazier won that first battle, but paid dearly in the process, spending three weeks in the hospital afterward. He was never the same fighter; in early 1973, he came as close to losing his life in the ring as one possibly can, pummeled by the first incarnation of George Foreman, who some will remember was not the kind and almost cuddly character he would become later in life. That fight, the entirety of which is available on YouTube, is truly frightening to watch. From the first time Frazier hits the canvas (accompanied by the immortal call of Howard Cosell, “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!) until the end, you really wonder if Frazier will exit the ring with his life. The scariest thing of all is hearing Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer who was at ringside that night, literally screaming at the top of his lungs to the referee, “Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! STOP IT!”
Meanwhile, Ali was miraculously returning to form (including a controversial win over Frazier in the rematch), culminating in a masterful defeat of Foreman in Zaire. That led to the inevitable rubber match, and although both fighters were clearly past their prime, it remains one of the greatest fights in the history of the sport. Ali clearly thought that Frazier was spent, and came out fast, hoping to end it quickly – within the first three rounds, if possible.
There was a moment in the third round that said a lot about both men. Near the end of the round, Ali was playing around on the ropes, trying to lull Frazier (as he did to Foreman) into the “rope a dope.” Literally nothing was happening, and then out of nowhere came a burst of punches from Ali, for a brief moment looking like the Ali of the mid-sixties. You see it today, and you wonder, “how can a man withstand such punishment?” And then, out of the blue, came a classic left hook from Frazier which caught Ali clean on the chin, and you could tell that Ali was stunned, hurt, and realizing that he was in for a long, long night.
After that night, for both men it was a story of long, and sometimes sad, decline. Ali in time would become an American hero, and I would argue that was richly deserved, but at the same time I would remind people that without Joe Frazier, he never would have reached the heights – at least in the ring – that he did.
Joe Frazier, R.I.P.