For a week, boxing was alive and well in the memory of its fans. Like George Foreman in 1994, when the then 45-year-old won the heavyweight championship, boxing beat back father time and became relevant, even central, to sport for a few short days.
This renewed interest was set off by a tragedy, the untimely passing of a great man. Smokin’ Joe Frazier, an Olympic gold medalist and a world heavyweight champion in arguably the greatest era of heavyweight boxing, died of liver cancer in his home on Nov. 7, at the age of 67.
One of the many who mourned his death was Muhammad Ali, Frazier’s fiercest rival. The two played integral roles in each other’s lives, shaping their respective legends in the fires of their three fights, polarizing boxing supporters inside and outside of the ring.
Their history is a complicated one. When Ali was stripped of his title and arrested for his refusal to be inducted into the Armed Forces, Frazier, then the number one contender, refused to compete in the tournament for Ali’s vacated belt in protest of the decision. When Ali was released from prison and had his boxing license reinstated (in part due to the efforts of Frazier), the two met in the first of three fights, appropriately titled Fight of the Century. In the first-ever match between undefeated heavyweight champions, Frazier beat the older Ali resoundingly in a unanimous decision. Frazier then defended his title twice before losing to a young and ferocious Foreman. Ali and Frazier’s second fight didn’t have the import of the first or third as it was a non-title fight. But their third, the Thrilla in Manila, will go down in history as one of the greatest ever.
Since Frazier died, I’ve re-watched all of these fights in their entirety and have been enthralled by the display of boxing and fighting ability shown by the two champions. The thing that struck home the most though, was the beauty of their contrasting styles.
Ali’s feet sought to refute the scales’ calculations that he was indeed a heavyweight, as he floated and danced around the ring with preternatural quickness; Frazier’s heavy soles, like his persona, were bound to the earth. A blue collar hero in his adopted home of Philadelphia, Frazier didn’t have Ali’s flourishes—his winks at press row, his interactions with the crowd, or his mocking glove, extended in a hapless opponent’s face—Frazier was a simple juggernaut, a perpetual motion machine that knew only one direction: forward, leading with his head and bobbing and weaving through the onslaught of blows longer-limbed fighters would rain on him from above. Finally, like a greyhound or a heat-seeking missile, Frazier’s head would close that gap and come to rest on his opponent’s chest, nuzzling it, almost tenderly. There, he was safe, at least physically, as Ali couldn’t generate the power to hurt him from that close. He would absorb a torrent of verbal abuse though, between grunts from Frazier’s powerful left hook, a clubbing blow that shattered ribs and was particularly effective at intimate range. Frazier’s one idiosyncrasy was his head, which bobbled like a demented jack-in-the-box with a specially tuned affinity to Ali’s punching rhythm. At times he ducked his way through torrents of Ali’s sharp jabs seemingly unscathed.
Outside of the ring, the fighters were also vastly different. Frazier was a hero to the working class, while Ali was a playboy, a fast-talking draft dodger who was close friends with the dangerous and divisive Malcolm X. Ali, known for his verbal sparring nearly as well as for his sparring in the ring, let his tongue run loose against Frazier in the lead up to each of their fights, calling him “ugly,” and “the gorilla.” Those taunts hurt Frazier deeply and the animosity we witnessed in their matches wasn’t staged, at least not on Joe’s part.
The two reconciled much later, only after they had both turned deaf ears towards the pleas of their daughters, also boxers, to make peace.
Every one of Frazier and Ali’s fights was incredible—compelling acts of physical, technical, and tactical artistry. But in the aftermath of watching them, rather than contentment, I was filled with bilious rage.
This relates to the second, much less important but still notable piece of recent boxing news, Manny Pacquiao versus Juan Manuel Márquez III. They fought one of the better fights seen in years, but it only whet my appetite for the one fight that all fans have waited, and waited, and waited for: Pacquiao versus Floyd Mayweather.
These two should have been our generation’s Frazier and Ali, but they’ve hemmed and hawed and it looks like they’re equally complacent to end their respective careers without ever having fought. I wonder if they fear to fight because the loser would end up like Joe Frazier, doomed to runner-up status. If that’s the case then they’re foolish, because I know a lot of people, myself included, who will remember a warrior like Frazier with more fondness than either of them.
Like Muhammad Ali said, “[T]hat’s one helluva man, and God bless him.”