Smokin' Joe elevated to greatness by Ali rivalry
Olympic gold-medallist. Undisputed world heavyweight champion. Twelve world-title fights. A 73% knockout record. Arguably the best left hook in history. All this with a gammy arm and while blind in one eye. You see, it can be done, outlining Joe Frazier's greatness without mentioning 'the other one'. Ah well, I very nearly managed it.
Truth was, and truth is, however much Frazier might have protested, Muhammad Ali illuminated Frazier's own greatness while also managing to be the bane of his life.
Great rivalries elevate the rivals involved to greater heights - John McEnroe opined that tennis was never as much fun again after Bjorn Borg retired - but when your rival is the most charismatic sportsman who ever lived, you are liable to forget the excitement you generated together, all that money you made and feel overshadowed, unappreciated and bitter instead.
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Towards the end of his life, Frazier's feelings towards Ali did soften ["I'd do anything he needed for me to help," Frazier said in an interview in 2009] but as recently as 2008 his answering machine bore the message: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, I done the job, he knows, look and see". Frazier revelled in the part he played in Ali's physical decline and, wherever he is now, is probably kicking himself for being the first of the two to die.
But if some of Frazier's remarks about his nemesis were in bad taste - when Ali lit the Olympic cauldron at the Atlanta Games in 1996, a deeply emotional moment for many, Frazier told a reporter he would have liked to throw him into the flames - they must be viewed through the prism of Ali's cruelty and malevolence.
Once upon a time, Frazier and Ali were buddies. When Ali was in the wilderness, his licence having been revoked because he refused to fight in Vietnam, Frazier lobbied President Nixon to issue a pardon and also lent money to Ali, who was despised by many in the United States and on his uppers.
Then, on the announcement of "The Fight of the Century" in 1971, Ali went on the turn. There are still those in the Ali camp who protest that their man calling Frazier an "Uncle Tom" and accusing him of working for the white man was nothing but a bit of fun. But for Frazier, who had indeed worked for the white man in the parched fields of South Carolina since the age of seven and whose privations far outweighed Ali's, this was deeply wounding rhetoric.
In his autobiography, Ali's trainer Angelo Dundee suggests his charge, in a fit of pique, made a calculated decision to lace his barbs with racial poison because Frazier was not rising to the fun taunts Ali usually dealt in. But when Ali cranked it up, Frazier turned his hatred inward and steeled himself for what was sure to be a brutal battle at Madison Square Garden.
Ali-Frazier I may have been packaged like a pretty gift from Bloomingdales - Burt Lancaster the 'colour commentator', Frank Sinatra taking snaps through the ropes, fans "dressed to the nines in full-length white mink coats," recalls Dundee, "and those were the men" - but once the dainty bows were pulled apart, guts and hearts came spilling out.
Across 15 savage rounds, Frazier outworked a now thicker, less mobile Ali, wobbling the former champion in the 11th and flooring him with a crackerjack left hook in the 15th before being awarded a lop-sided unanimous decision. As Ali's cheerleader, Bundini Brown, said afterwards, Frazier had "blown Ali's candles out".
However, while Ali's candles, like those magic ones you get on birthday cakes, fizzed back to life, Frazier was never the same fighter again. Almost two years later, he was down six times before being dethroned by George Foreman inside two rounds. The final knockdown, when Frazier's body stiffened as if jabbed with a cattle-prod and both legs left the canvas, has become synonymous with the barbarism of heavyweight boxing.
Frazier hits Muhammad Ali during the 15th round of their heavyweight title fight at New York's Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971 . Photo: AP
But boxing is about styles, and while Frazier may not have looked much cop against a hard-hitting giant like Foreman - Frazier was pulped again in a rematch - "Smokin' Joe", once described as "a wild beast caught in a thicket", knew he had the measure of Ali, who was not as big as Foreman and nowhere near as concussive.
In addition, Ali, who labelled Frazier "The Gorilla" before their third match, the "Thrilla in Manila", believed his old foe was spent. Their second match, when Ali jabbed Frazier's head off for 12 one-sided rounds, convinced him of such. But rumours of Frazier's demise had been greatly exaggerated. Frazier, burning with indignation, proclaimed before the bout: "I don't want to knock him out in Manila, I want to take his heart out."
What followed were 14 of the most turbulent rounds in heavyweight history, action that bordered on the obscene. When Frazier was pulled out by his trainer Eddie Futch, his face resembled, in the words of Dundee, "an apple that had been halved and pieced back together off-centre". "It's over," said Futch, "no-one will forget what you did here today."
And so it came to pass. While Frazier beat Oscar Bonavena, Jerry Quarry, Jimmy Ellis (all twice), George Chuvalo and Bob Foster in a career spanning 16 years, he will forever be defined by that victory over Ali in New York and even more so by that jaw-dropping demonstration of courage in a losing cause in Manila.
When I interviewed Frazier in 2006, he was disconsolate at and bemused by the parlous state of heavyweight boxing. "I don't see anyone who's going to bring back the glory days," he said. "Do you know who the heavyweight champion is?" But the ill winds that whistle through the current heavyweight division will also serve to fan Frazier's smokin' legacy into flames: a glorious fighter from a glorious era, how boxing could do with his like today.
Said Ali himself immediately after their third fight in Manila: "I have nothing bad to say about Joe Frazier. Without him I wouldn't be who I am and without me he couldn't be who he is. We've been a pretty good team for four or five years."