Twenty-five years later, Ali and Frazier are still slugging it out
This story originally appeared in the Sept. 30, 1996 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
It is always the punch a fighter does not see that hurts the most, and the little girl was so sweet and innocent-looking, standing shyly at her mothe’s side, that there was no way Joe Frazier could have seen it coming.
The former heavyweight champion of the world was sitting under a tent on the banks of the Delaware River in Philadelphia, at a place called Penn's Landing, where his touring autograph show had set up shop at an outdoor festival. With his son Marvis, Joe trains and manages fighters out of his Broad Street gym in Philly, but he also spends an inordinate amount of time signing his name in that long, sweeping script on photographs of himself and on merchandise from his portable store. On this languid September afternoon, under a sign that announced ‘MEET YOUR PHILLY SPORTS HEROES,’ flanked by stacks of ‘SMOKIN’ JOE’ hats ($10) and T-shirts ($23), Frazier was signing everything put in front of him, gratis, schmoozing with parents as he posed for pictures with their children and hamming it up for the cameras. He was all grins and merriment for the scores of people who had waited in the sun for an audience.
At about 2:30 p.m., Frazier looked up and saw a petite and demure 10-year-old, Ginnysue Kowalick, her head slightly bowed, standing across the table. “My daughter doesn’t know you too well, Joe,” said the girl's mother, Marilyn Kowalick. “She has a question, but she's too shy to ask.”
- Cassius invades Britain
- My $1,000,000 Getaway
- Cassius—His Fight And His Future
- The Big Fight: Can Clay Do It Again?
- Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston
- The Fight You Didn't See
- The Big Fight: Clay vs. Patterson
- Cassius Clay: The Man, the Muslim, the Mystery
- The Big Fight: Clay vs. Terrell
- Scramble for Ali's title
- Ali-Clay; the once and future king?
- The Slugger And The Boxer
- End of the Ali legend
- The future is a mist
- The Jaw is broken
- Ali Again
- Muhammad Ali: Sportsman of the Year
- Boxing's New Barnum
- The Epic Battle
- Ali's Road Show Rolls On
- Ali's Desperate Hour
- The Champ Again
- Look Who's Back!
- He's no Liston. He's no Frazier.
- The Last Hurrah
- The man and his entourage today
- 35th anniversary
- Once and Forever
- Battle of Champions: Ali vs. Frazier
- Who's that guy with Howard Bingham?
Frazier nodded. “O.K.,” he said.
“She wants to know if you ever beat Muhammad Ali,” Marilyn said.
A scowl passed like a shadow down Frazier’s face, and for a long moment he sat reeling in his chair, leaning back as his eyes rolled wildly from side to side, and he groaned, groping for words, “Agghh....Ohhh....Agghh....”
Alarmed at Frazier’s reaction, Marilyn leaned forward and said, “I’m sorry.”
At last reassembling his scattered faculties, Frazier looked at Ginnysue and said, “We locked up three times. He won two, and I won one. But look at him now. I think I won all three.”
Two days earlier, at the Essex House in New York City, the object of Frazier's turbulent emotions sat folded on a couch in a suite of rooms overlooking Manhattan's Central Park. He lay back and fumbled with his third package of shortbread cookies. White crumbs speckled his black shirt—the remains of his day, the emblematic story of his life. Ali had just spent most of an afternoon signing a limited edition of large photographs that showed him, dressed in luminous white, holding the Olympic torch during the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Games in Atlanta. He was in New York for the screening of yet another documentary celebrating his life, this one a TNT production with the unlikely title, Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story.
Ali speaks in barely a whisper now, unless he has an audience, and then his voice rises raspingly, just enough to carry a room. Surrounded by a small group of fans and followers at the Essex House earlier that day, he could not resist the chance to perform. He raised his right fist in the air and said, “This is the piston that got to Liston!” He also asked the gathering, “Know what Lincoln said when he woke up from a two-day drunk?”
A dozen heads craned forward. Ali's eyes widened in shock. “I freed the whooo?” he blurted to the nearly all-white audience. High, nervous laughter filled the room.
“I saw Joe Frazier in Philly last week,” a voice nearby said
Ali’s eyes grew wide again. “Joe Fraysha?” he whispered.
He has known for years of Frazier’s anger and bitterness toward him, but he knows nothing of the venom that coursed through Frazier’s recent autobiography, Smokin’ Joe. Of Ali, Frazier wrote, “Truth is, I’d like to rumble with that sucker again—beat him up piece by piece and mail him back to Jesus.... Now people ask me if I feel bad for him, now that things aren’t going so well for him. Nope. I don’t. Fact is, I don’t give a damn. They want me to love him, but I’ll open up the graveyard and bury his ass when the Lord chooses to take him.”
Nor does Ali know what Frazier said after watching him, with his trembling arm, light the Olympic flame, “It would have been a good thing if he would have lit the torch and fallen in. If I had the chance, I would have pushed him in.”
Nor does Ali know of Frazier’s rambling diatribe against him at a July 30 press conference in Atlanta, where Frazier attacked the choice of Ali, the Olympic light heavyweight gold medalist in 1960 and a three-time heavyweight champion of the world, as the final bearer of the torch. He called Ali a “dodge drafter,” implied that Ali was a racist (“He didn't like his white brothers,” said Frazier) and suggested that he himself—also an Olympic champion, as a heavyweight, in 1964—would have made a better choice to light the flame, “Why not? I’m a good American.... A champion is more than making noise. I could have run up there. I’m in shape.”
And while Frazier asserts at one turn that he sees “the hand of the Lord” in Ali's Parkinson's syndrome (a set of symptoms that include tremors and a masklike face), he also takes an eerily
mean-spirited pride in the role he believes he played in causing Ali’s condition. Indeed, the Parkinson’s most likely traces to the repeated blows Ali took to the head as a boxer—traumas that ravaged the colony of dopamine-producing cells in his brain—and no man struck Ali's head harder and more repeatedly than Frazier.
“He’s got Joe Frazier-itis,” Frazier said of Ali one day recently, flexing his left arm. “He’s got left-hook-itis.”
Ali’s wife, Lonnie, shields him from such loutish and hateful pronouncements. “I don't want him hearing negative things,” Lonnie says. “It’s trash.”
Ali has been living rent free in Frazier’s head for more than 25 years, ever since Ali—after being stripped of his heavyweight championship in 1967 for refusing induction into the U.S. Army, and then serving a 3 1/2-year suspension from boxing—emerged from his banishment and immediately set about regaining his title, which by then was held by Smokin’ Joe. At Ali’s urgent pleading, Frazier backed him in his fight to regain his boxing license, but no sooner had that been accomplished than Ali began cruelly berating his benefactor, a man who had grown up mule-poor in Beaufort, S.C., the son of a struggling farmer and bootlegger. The young Frazier had migrated to Philly, taken up boxing and become the precursor of Rocky Balboa, training by tenderizing sides of beef in a kosher slaughterhouse with his sibilant left hook.
Over the next five years, from their first fight in New York City, on March 8, 1971, until their third and last in Manila on Oct. 1, 1975, Ali humiliated and enraged and ultimately isolated Frazier, casting him as a shuffling and mumbling Uncle Tom, an ugly and ignorant errand boy for white America. But the most lasting characterization of all was the one Ali coined on their way to the Philippines in ’75, the one that came near the end of the singsong rhyme he would deliver with that mischievous smirk on his moon-bright face, “It will be a killa and a chilla and a thrilla when I get the gorilla in Manila!”
Of all the names joined forever in the annals of boxing—from Dempsey-Tunney to Louis-Schmeling, from Zale-Graziano to Leonard-Hearns--none are more fiercely bound by a hyphen than Ali-Frazier. Not Palmer-Nicklaus in golf nor Borg-McEnroe in tennis, as ardently competitive as these rivalries were, conjure up anything remotely close to the epic theater of Ali-Frazier. Their first fight, snagged in the most turbulent political currents of our time, is widely viewed as the greatest single sporting event of this half century. And the third fight—for its savagery, its shifting momentum and its climactic moment, in which the two men sat battered on their stools—is regarded, by consensus, as the most surpassing prizefight in history.
So here it is, 25 years after Ali-Frazier I, and Frazier is burning like the flame that Ali set off with his Olympic torch. Feeling that history has treated him unfairly, Frazier is haunted and overshadowed by his old tormentor, the very figure he did most to help create. Frazier was one of the greatest of all gladiators, but today he finds himself cast as just another player in the far larger drama of Ali’s life. He is trapped and wriggling in the Ali mystique, embedded in the amber of Ali's life and times.
For Ali is as near to a cultural saint as any man of our era. His appearance on the Atlanta stage was a window, thrown suddenly open, on the long journey he has taken through the lights and shadows of our unresolved past—America’s past. As his left arm shook, he lit the flame and choked the breath of a nation. His life has become an extended public appearance: He swims among crowds wherever he goes, leading with the most recognizable chin on the planet. He tells old knock-knock jokes, receives visitors like a Middle East potentate and signs off on the next book about his life. And now and again, just for old times’ sake, he leans over to whisper in Joe Frazier’s ear.
As he did when his eyes widened in that suite at the Essex House. And then he gave the impish grin. “Joe Fraysha?” Ali said. “You seen the gorilla? From Manila?”
The geometry of the lives of Ali and Frazier is forever fixed in history. The line between them, once as curved and sweeping as a left hook and as long as a flicking jab, is today as irreducibly short as the one that joins their names. The two men left each other scarred in different ways. Ali’s wounds are visible on the surface; you can see them on his face. Frazier’s wounds lie deeper within; you can hear them in the pain in his voice.
There had never been a night like this one in New York City. By 10:30 p.m. on the evening of March 8, 1971, when the two fighters climbed into the ring at Madison Square Garden, Ali in red trunks and Frazier in green-and-gold brocade, there was a feral scent and crackle to the place. The Garden was a giant bell jar into which more than 20,000 people had drifted, having passed through police barricades that rimmed the surrounding streets. They came in orange and mint-green and purple velvet hot pants, in black leather knickers and mink and leopard capes, in cartridge belts and feathered chapeaux and pearl-gray fedoras. Some sported hats with nine-inch brims and leaned jauntily on diamond-studded walking sticks. Manhattan listed toward Babylon.
“I looked down from the ring, and it was a sea of glitter,” recalls Eddie Futch, who was then Frazier’s assistant trainer. “I have never seen any boxing event that had so many celebrities.”
Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer, was making his way through the tumult to the ring when he heard someone call his name, “Hey, Ange!” Dundee looked up. Frank Sinatra snapped his picture; the singer was working for Life magazine. Burt Lancaster was doing radio commentary. Ringside seats had sold for $150, but scalpers were getting $1,000. “Plumage, pimps and hustlers,” says Bobby Goodman, the fight publicist. The fighters were each getting a record $2.5 million, an astronomical sum in those days, and the worldwide television audience was 300 million. The Garden ring was the wrist on which America was checking its pulse.
The boxer-dancer with the beautiful legs had arrived to do battle against the puncher-plodder with the thick thighs. Of course, the fans had come to see more than a classic clash of styles. The match was billed as the Fight of the Century, and the sporting world had been waiting for it for more than three years, ever since Frazier knocked out Buster Mathis in 11 rounds on March 4, 1968, to win the vacant New York heavyweight title and begin laying claim to being the toughest man on earth—the toughest, at least, with a passport. The previous year Ali had been stripped of his world championship and his freedom to travel abroad, and during his ensuing 43-month absence from the ring, Frazier buried his implacable hook into every heavyweight who stood in his way, finally winning the vacant world title on Feb. 16, 1970, by knocking out Jimmy Ellis in the fifth round.
During his exile Ali, who had to earn his money on the college lecture circuit, began to knock at Frazier’s door, seeking help to get back his license to fight, saying that an Ali-Frazier match would make them both rich. “He'd come to the gym and call me on the telephone,” says Frazier. “He just wanted to work with me for the publicity so he could get his license back. One time, after the Ellis fight, I drove him from Philadelphia to New York City in my car. Me and him. We talked about how much we were going to make out of our fight. We were laughin’ and havin’ fun. We were friends, we were great friends. I said, ‘Why not? Come on, man, let’s do it!’ He was a brother. He called me Joe, ‘Hey, Smokin’ Joe!’ In New York we were gonna put on this commotion.”
For Ali, the most gifted carnival barker in the history of sports, the commotion was father to the promotion. So when Frazier stopped his car in midtown Manhattan and walked into astore to buy a pair of shoes, Ali leaped out, his eyes bulging, and cried, “It's Joe Frazier, ladies and gentlemen! Smokin’ Joe! There he is! He's got my title! I want my title! He ain’t the champ, he’s the chump. I’m the people’s champ!”
Frazier, a proud and soft-spoken rural Southerner, had never witnessed anything like this. It rattled him at first. Butch Lewis, a companion of Frazier’s and later a promoter himself, explained to him what Ali was doing, “He’s not disrespecting you. This is Ali! This is what will make the payday. This is not personal.”
Lewis says the men shared more than anyone knows. Frazier knew that Ali was in need of money. On at least two occasions, Lewis says, Frazier slipped Ali cash when he needed it, once giving him $2,000 to pay an overdue bill at the City Squire Motor Inn in New York City. But now Ali was dabbing curare on the tip of his rhetoric.
All through Ali’s youth in Louisville and his early years as a champion, he had been a blend of his chesty, arrogant, yakety-yak father, Cassius Clay Sr., and his gentle, uncommonly sweet mother, Odessa. “Ali is softhearted and generous to a fault,” says his former fight doctor, Ferdie Pacheco. “Essentially a sweet guy whose whole demeanor aims to amuse, to entertain and be liked.” Yet there was a period in Ali’s life, after he revealed that he had joined the separatist Black Muslims in 1964, when that side of his personality disappeared—“when he was not particularly pleasant to anyone,” says Pacheco, recalling the two years before Ali’s exile, when he fought Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell. “He was a hateful guy.”
Neither Patterson nor Terrell would call him Ali—they used what he called his “slave name,” Cassius Clay—and so in the ring he played with each of them as a cat would with a wounded mouse, keeping them alive to torture them. “What’s my name?” he demanded of them as he landed his punches at will. Goodman, who was Terrell’s publicist then, says, ”He gave Ernie a merciless beating around the eyes. Ernie had double vision for a long time.”
If Ali emerged from his exile years a softer man, as many contend, he had not forgotten how to sting and wound an opponent. “There was an awful mean streak in Ali,” says Dave Wolf, then one of Frazier’s confidants. “He did to Joe verbally what he did to Terrell physically.”
The Ali who had laughed and bantered with Frazier, who had raised all that good-natured commotion in Manhattan, now appeared to be a man transformed—stripped of his disguise. “Joe Frazier is too ugly to be champ,” Ali 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.’” That played to the most insidious racial stereotype, the dumb and ugly black man, but Ali reached further, “Joe Frazier is an Uncle Tom.” And further, “Ninety-eight percent of my people are for me. They identify with my struggle.... If I win, they win. I lose, they lose. Anybody black who thinks Frazier can whup me is an Uncle Tom.”
In fact, because of Ali’s work for racial justice and because of the sacrifices he made in his stand against the Vietnam War, the vast majority of blacks—as well as an increasing number of whites—saw his battles as theirs and were drawn to him as a force for social change. The most prominent voices of the 1960s, a decade torn by conflict and rebellion, had been silenced. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was dead. Bobby Kennedy was dead. Senator Eugene McCarthy had drifted like a blip off the screen. Ali alone remained alive in the ruins—the most commanding voice for and symbol of the decade’s causes.
In the months leading up to the fight, he brought to bear all the horsepower of his eloquence. His demeaning of Frazier, Ali now says, had but one purpose: “To sell tickets.” Of course, Frazier says there was no need to sell anything, because their purses were guaranteed, but this argument ignores the fact that Ali was always selling more than tickets. The consummate performer, he was selling himself. And there are those who say that Ali's rhetoric was merely a part of his act, the tappety-tap-tap of his every-day walking shtick. But whatever compelled him to violate all canons of fairness and decency in his portrayal of Frazier—whether it was meanness, bravado or a calculated plan to enrage and rattle his opponent--he succeeded in isolating Frazier from the black community.
And Frazier? He felt manipulated, humiliated and betrayed. “He had me stunned,” Frazier says. “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 asked 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 said to myself, I’m gonna kill him. O.K.? Simple as that. I’m gonna kill him!”
So by the time they climbed through the ropes that night in the Garden, the lure of the fight went far beyond the exquisitely contrasting ring styles of the two men. For many viewers Ali was still the mouth that poured, the renegade traitor and rabble-rouser whose uppity black ass needed dusting. For many others, of course, he symbolized all successful men of color who did not conform in a white man's world—and the hope that one, at least one, would overcome. Frazier had done nothing to earn the caricature of Uncle Tom, but Ali had lashed him to that stake as if to define their war in black and white. Frazier knew the scope of Ali’s appeal. A Bible-raised man, he saw himself as David to Ali's Goliath.
“David had a slingshot,” Frazier says. “I had a left hook.”
For 14 rounds, almost a full hour in which the Garden never stopped rocking, Frazier pursued and pounded the former champion like a man simultaneously pushing a plow and chopping wood. Ali won the first two rounds, dancing and landing jabs and stinging rights, but by the third, under a remorseless body attack climaxed by a searing hook to the ribs, his feet had begun to flatten, and soon he was fighting toe-to-toe, his back pushed against the ropes.
It was a fight with two paces, fast and faster, and among its abiding images is that of Frazier, head down and body low, bobbing and weaving incessantly, taking lashing lefts and rights from Ali, then unloading that sweeping hook to the jaw, and Ali waving his head defiantly—No, no, that didn’t hurt—and coming back, firing jabs and hooks and straight rights to Frazier’s head. It was soon clear that this was not the Ali of old, the butterfly who had floated through his championship years, and that the long absence from the ring had stolen his legs and left him vulnerable. He had always been a technically unsound fighter: He threw punches going backward, fought with his arms too low and avoided sweeping punches by leaning back instead of ducking. He could get away with that when he had the speed and reflexes of his youth, but he no longer had them, and Frazier was punishing him.
Frazier quickened the tempo in the third and fourth, whaling Ali with lefts and rights. Ali moved as he fired jabs and landed rights and shouted at Frazier, “Do you know I’m God?”
“God, you’re in the wrong place tonight,” Frazier shot back. “I’m takin’ names and kickin’ ass!”
The Garden crowd was on its feet. Frazier mimicked Ali in the fifth, dropping his hands and laughing as Ali struck him with a left and a right. Frazier’s ferocious head and body attacks began to slow Ali down, but the former champion scored repeatedly as Frazier moved in, and by the start of the eighth the crowd was chanting, “Ali! Ali! Ali!” Looking inspired, Frazier bore in, crashing a hook on Ali’s head and following it up with two rights. After Ali mockingly tapped him on the head, Frazier drove a fiery hook into the ex-champ's jaw, and after the bell that ended the round members of the crowd were chanting, “Joe! Joe! Joe!”
Starting the 11th Frazier was winning on two of the three cards, and it was here that he took possession of the fight. As Ali stood in a neutral corner, Frazier stepped inside and let fly a thunderous hook to the jaw that snapped Ali's neck and buckled his legs. Ali looked gone. A hard right sent him sagging on the ropes. Another wobbled him again. At the bell he was still on his feet, but he moved shakily back to his corner.
If Ali-Frazier I was the most memorable athletic event of our time, surely it was the 15th round that made it so. About twenty seconds after the opening bell, Frazier threw the most famous left hook in boxing history and raised the evening to the realm of myth. The punch began south of his brocade trunks, somewhere down in Beaufort, and rose in a whistling arc that ended on the right side of Ali's jaw, just above the point of the chin. Ali sprawled on his back, the tassels on his shoes flying in the air. “I looked up,” Ali says today, “and I was on the floor.”
Frazier turned and walked away. Earlier in the fight, after pounding Ali with hooks to the head, he had asked his cornermen, “What is keeping this guy up?” Now he asked it again as he turned and saw Ali climb slowly to his feet at the count of four. Frazier won a unanimous decision—“I kicked your ass!” he would yell at Ali as the final bell sounded—but among the enduring moments of that night was the one in which a battered Ali rose off that deck.
The two fighters sent each other to the hospital. Ali went briefly for a swollen right jaw, which made him appear to need a tooth extraction, and a lumpy-faced Frazier was in and out for two weeks for treatment of exhaustion, high blood pressure and kidney problems. The two men also left each other irreversibly diminished. They would never be the same fighters again.
Thirty-five months would pass before they would meet for Ali-Frazier II, on Jan. 28, 1974, at the Garden. But by then the context in which they fought had changed so dramatically that there is no comparing the two bouts. On Jan. 22, 1973, Frazier had lost his title when George Foreman hit him a few times with his wrecking-ball right and knocked him senseless in the second round in Kingston, Jamaica. So there was no championship at stake in Ali-Frazier II. By then, too, the social causes of the ’60s were no longer ardent issues. But the Vietnam War had become such a national plague that Ali's popularity had climbed at roughly the same rate that the war's had declined.
The only thing that remained the same was Frazier's incandescent animus toward Ali, unappeased by his victory in ’71. Five days before the second fight, sitting together before a national TV audience on ABC, they were discussing the first bout when Frazier referred to Ali's visit to the hospital. “I went to the hospital for 10 minutes,” Ali shot back. “You went for a month.”
“I was resting,” Frazier said.
“That shows how dumb you are,” Ali said. “People don't go to a hospital to rest. See how ignorant you are?”
Frazier had not had much formal schooling, and Ali had touched his hottest button. “I’m tired of you calling me ignorant all the time,“ snapped Frazier. “I’m not ignorant!” With that, he rose and towered over Ali, tightening his fists, his eyes afire. When Ali's brother, Rahaman, rushed to the stage, Frazier turned to him and said, “You in this too?” Here Ali jumped to his feet and grabbed Frazier in a bear hug. They rolled off the stage and onto the studio floor, and Goodman remembers Frazier holding one of Ali’s feet and twisting it, like the head of a chicken, while Futch screamed, “Joe! Joe! Don’t twist off his foot! There won't be a fight.”
Ali was bug-eyed as Frazier left in a fury. “Did you see how wide Clay's eyes opened up?” Frazier said. “Now I really got him scared!”
Frazier got nothing. Ali won an easy 12-round decision, nearly knocking Frazier out in the second round and then clinching and smothering whatever attack Frazier tried to mount inside. Indeed, Ali put on a boxing clinic, fighting at his range instead of Frazier’s, and many of Frazier’s sweeping hooks appeared to lack the snap they'd had three years before. The Ali-Frazier rivalry might have ended right there, in fact, if Ali had not taken events into his hands so magnificently nine months later, on Oct. 30 in Kinshasa, Zaire, knocking out Foreman—the baddest man on the planet—in an upset that staggered the memory and fired the imagination.
Ali’s victory in Africa eventually led to Ali-Frazier III, the final combat, in the Philippines. Here the two fighters got guaranteed purses, $4.5 million for Ali and $2 million for Frazier, plus a percentage of the gross. Once again Ali had become the largest draw in sports, and once again he went at Frazier with a vengeance, correcting his diction and carrying around, in his shirt pocket, a small rubber gorilla. At a press conference before the fight, Ali pulled out the doll in front of Frazier and began beating it, saying, “All night long, this is what you’ll see. Come on, gorilla! We’re in Manila! Come on, gorilla, this is a thrilla!” Black people cringed, but not a few whites laughed, and Frazier felt again the heat of his own anger.
No one knew what to expect when these two aging fighters came together that morning in Manila. Several major U.S. newspapers didn’t bother sending a writer to cover the fight. But those who were there witnessed prizefighting in its grandest manner, the final epic in a running blood feud between two men, each fighting to own the heart of the other. The fight called upon all of their will and courage as they pitched from one ring post to another emitting fearful grunts and squeals.
By the end of the 10th round Ali looked like a half-drowned man who had just been pulled from Manila Bay. His aching body slumped, glistening with sweat. He had won the early rounds, snapping his whiplike jab on Frazier's face, but as in ’71 Frazier had found his rolling rhythm after a few rounds, and by the fifth he had driven Ali into his corner and was thumping his body like a blacksmith. Ali’s trainer was frantic. “Get outta the goddam corner!” screamed Dundee. It was too late. The fight had shifted from Ali to Frazier.
For the next five rounds it was as if Frazier had reached into the darkest bat cave of his psyche and freed all his pent-up rage. In the sixth he pressed and attacked, winging three savage hooks to Ali’s head, the last of which sent his mouthpiece flying. For the first time in the fight, Ali sat down between rounds. Frazier resumed the attack in the seventh, at one point landing four straight shots to the body, at another point landing five. In the ninth, as Ali wilted, the fighting went deeper into the trenches, down where Frazier whistles while he works, and as he landed blow upon blow he could hear Ali howling in pain. In his corner after the 10th, Ali said to Pacheco, “This must be what dyin’ is like.”
Frazier owned the fight. He was sure to regain his title. And then came the 11th. Drew (Bundini) Brown, Ali’s witch doctor, pleaded with him, “Go down to the well once more!” From wherever it is that such men draw the best and noblest of themselves, Ali emerged reborn. During the next four rounds he fought with a precision and fury that made a bloody Frazier weave and wobble. In the 12th Ali landed six consecutive punches to Frazier’s head, and moments later he slammed home eight more. By the end of the round an archipelago of lumps had surfaced around the challenger’s eyes and brow.
Futch could see Frazier’s left eye closing. Before the 13th he told his boxer, “Move back and stand up a little, so you can see the target better.” That was just what Ali needed, more room and a taller man to fire at. “Boy, did he take advantage of that,” says Futch. Ali threw punches in flurries, so many blows that Frazier reeled helplessly. A right cross sent Frazier's white mouthpiece twirling four rows into the seats. Futch kept thinking, Ali has to slow down. He cannot keep this pace. Not into the 14th round! By then Frazier's face was a misshapen moonscape, both eyes closing, and in the 14th Ali fired barrages and raked a nearly blind Frazier with rights and lefts. Futch stared at Ali and thought, Incredible! When the bell tolled, it tolled for Joe.
“The fight’s over, Joe,” Futch told him before the beginning of the 15th.
Frazier jumped from his stool. He said, “Eddie....”
“Just sit down, Joe.”
A benumbed and exhausted Ali, his lips scraped raw, lay on a cot in his locker room in Manila and summoned Marvis Frazier, Joe's 15-year-old son, to his side. “Tell your dad the things I said I really didn't mean,” Ali said.
Marvis reported back to his father. “He should come to me, son,” Joe told him. “He should say it to my face.”
Back in the States, Ali called Lewis and asked him for Frazier's private number. Ali told Lewis that he wanted to apologize to Frazier for some of the things he had said. Lewis called Frazier, but, he says, Frazier told him, “Don't give it to him.”
In the 21 years since then, Ali and Frazier have seen each other at numerous affairs, and Frazier has barely disguised the loathing he feels toward his old antagonist. In 1988, for the taping of a film called Champions Forever, five former heavyweight title holders—Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Larry Holmes and Ken Norton—gathered in Las Vegas. A crowd of people were at Johnny Tocco's Gym for a morning shoot when Frazier started in on Ali, who was already debilitated by Parkinson’s. “Look at Ali,” Frazier said. “Look what's happened to him. All your talkin’, man. I'm faster than you are now. You’re damaged goods.”
“I’m faster than you are, Joe,” Ali slurred. Pointing to a heavy bag, Ali suggested a contest, “Let’s see who hits the bag the fastest.”
Frazier grinned, not knowing he was back in the slaughterhouse. He stripped off his coat, strode to the bag and buried a dozen rapid-fire hooks in it, punctuating each rip with a loud grunt, “Huh! Huh! Huh!” Without removing his coat, Ali went to the bag, assumed the ready stance and mimicked one Frazier grunt, “Huh!” He had not thrown a punch. He turned slowly to Frazier and said, “Wanna see it again, Joe?” In the uproar of hilarity that ensued, only Frazier did not laugh. Ali had humiliated him again.
After the shoot, at a luncheon for the fighters, Frazier had too much to drink, and afterward, as people milled around the room and talked, he started walking toward Ali. Thomas Hauser, Ali’s chronicler, watched the scene that unfolded over the next 20 minutes. Holmes quietly positioned himself between Ali and Frazier. “Joe was trying to get to Ali,” Hauser says, “but wherever Joe went, left or right, Holmes would step between him and Ali. Physically shielding him. Joe was frustrated. After about 10 minutes of this, Foreman walked up to Larry and said, ‘I’ll take over.’” So for the next 10 minutes Frazier quietly tried to get around 290 pounds of assimilated Big Macs. At one point Frazier leaned into Foreman, but Foreman only leaned back. “Keep it cool, Joe,” Foreman whispered. “Be calm.”
Ali had no idea this was going on. "He was walking around like Mr. Magoo," says Hauser. "He was oblivious."
While Frazier’s hostility toward Ali was well known to the fight crowd, it was not until his book came out last spring that he took his venom public. When Phil Berger, who wrote the book, began interviewing Frazier last fall and heard what he wanted to say about Ali, he warned Frazier of the damning impact it would have. “Ali’s become like a saintly figure,” Berger said.
Too bad, the fighter replied. “That's the way I feel.”
With his book and his unseemly harangue against Ali at the Olympics, which had the strong whiff of envy, Frazier may have done himself irreparable damage among the legions who have admired him steadfastly. What he wants from Ali is an apology for those long years of vilification—the apology he did not want to hear when Lewis called him on Ali's behalf after Manila.
Ali has expressed contrition more than once for the things he said. In Hauser's 1991 oral history Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, Ali says, “I’m sorry Joe Frazier is mad at me. I’m sorry I hurt him. Joe Frazier is a good man. I couldn’t have done what I did without him, and he couldn’t have done what he did without me.”
Wolf understands Frazier’s rage, but he sees Ali today and does not see the man behind the cruel jibes of the past. “I’m not sure that part exists anymore,” Wolf says. “Whether it is the Parkinson’s or just maturing, that part of him is gone.” So that leaves Frazier, imprisoned in the past, raging against a ghost.
Lewis, still a close friend of Frazier’s, has pleaded with him to cut Ali loose. At the real root of Frazier’s discontent, says Lewis, is his sense that history has not dealt with him fairly—that his Olympic triumph and his heavyweight championship years have been forgotten, and that time has turned him into just another stitch in the embroidery of Ali's legend. “You have your place in history, and Ali has his,” Lewis tells Frazier. “You can't reflect back in bitterness. Let it go.”
Futch's gentle voice still rings the clearest. His words in Manila, after 14 savage rounds that left Frazier's eyes nearly as blind as his heart is now, still echo faint but true. “The fight’s over, Joe.... The fight’s over, Joe.... The fight’s over, Joe.”