It's a pointless speculation, but it might be interesting to wonder just where Joe Frazier would be today without those little run-ins with Muhammad Ali. Well, he'd probably be alive, for one thing. That's a good theory for starters. Word came Monday that Frazier died of liver cancer at 67. Maybe that would have overtaken him in any event. But anybody who saw any of those three fights, particularly the two horrifying bookends of their heroic trilogy, would not be insulting medical opinion if he guessed Ali somehow had a hand in Frazier's ultimate mortality.
Those two fights, especially their first meeting in the Garden 40 years ago, and even more especially 1975's Thrilla in Manila, the fight that essentially ended their careers, were such violent affairs, such protracted examples of desperation, that any seasons lived beyond them have to be considered a kind of boxing gravy. They were not heavyweight title fights so much as near-death experiences, a brutally choreographed and lightly regulated self-destruction, their pride and ambition so inflamed that survival was no longer part of either fighter's plan.
It was bad, bad. Frazier won the first fight and spent three weeks in the hospital. Ali won the last and spent most of the rest of his life locked behind the mask of Parkinson's, shut up for good. Collateral damage is an insufficient descriptor. Forever after, those run-ins became a catchphrase for an exaggerated style of competition, for when athletic urgency just went a little too far, got out of hand, produced something both awful and wonderful, created injury disproportionate to any possible rewards. We hear it to this day: It was good, but it was no Ali-Frazier.
Whether or not he'd still be alive without Ali, it's probably more of a certainty that he'd have been happy. The two had begun as friends, Frazier something more than a place-holder while Ali endured a political exile smack dab in the middle of his prime. Frazier, the son of a South Carolina sharecropper, had easily captured the heavyweight title in Ali's absence, his relentless style a slightly reconsidered version of a threshing machine. It was not at all obvious that Ali, even if he were reinstated, could cope with this new and improved whirly-gig. Frazier was not called Smokin' Joe for nothing.
That the fight did happen was more a result of Frazier's respect for Ali, the champion willing to forgo a bigger split to help a guy out. Frazier had befriended Ali on several occasions, throwing timely lifelines, notably petitioning President Nixon to reinstate the former champ, but this one was the most important. And Ali was not unappreciative, the two of them more like brothers than rivals during Ali's suspension from boxing. Yet when it came time for the fight, Ali went off the promotional rails and began marketing the bout -- in 1971 after all -- as a cultural and political referendum. Ali would be the revolutionary, the man of the times; Frazier would be the Uncle Tom, a sociological and perhaps athletic throwback. Frazier was stunned, aggrieved, hurt.
Perhaps the fury of that fight was heightened by the back story, though most likely it was simply what happened whenever you put these two guys in the same ring. But it opened a wound in Frazier that never healed. When they met again in 1975, the intervening years not kind to either man (Frazier lost his title to George Foreman, Ali gaining no purchase on history either, and their second meeting so insufficient to memories of the first that it is rarely remembered), it was Ali who again resorted to a campaign of ugliness, his famous teasing gone unforgivably bad, his foe now devolved from Uncle Tom into the Gorilla in Manila.
The pain of those taunts outlasted even Frazier's disappointment in the result, 14 rounds of sheer recklessness, first Ali's fight, then Frazier's, then miraculously Ali's again. Ali later said it was the "closest thing to dying I know of." It was a question of who would quit first, and the answer was neither; Frazier's corner had to cut his gloves off before the final round, surely a lifesaving event. Yet it was probably Ali's mockery that kept Frazier awake so many nights later.
That fight was pretty much the end of their careers (Frazier lost once more to Foreman then gave it up; Ali stuck it out several more years, though never again as brilliant or determined), and Frazier was left to a life of resentment. He never got over the losses, the insults, the legacy that was left him. Ali became a world hero, lighting Olympic flames, an example of political courage the rest of his mute life. Frazier, a bitter, old warrior, instead had to consider the inadequacies of grit in a time that was more inclined to reward glamour.
What would we think of Frazier, without those run-ins? As it is, he ranks among the top 10 heavyweights of all time, his remorseless attack usually punctuated by one of history's greatest left hooks, properly celebrated in boxing's Hall of Fame. His record of 32-4 would have been improved by Ali's nonexistence for sure, and without those losses might have been able to coast a bit further on the championship franchise. He made money and was famous, but more is always better. And maybe, had Ali not been allowed to dictate the ridiculous terms of their debate, he could have represented his race and his generation (which, after all, were exactly Ali's) to greater appreciation. Why couldn't Joe Frazier be the young black hero the counterculture wanted?
Pointless speculation. This is how it turned out, Frazier both ruined and elevated by Ali, marinating in his bitterness all those years later. He dabbled in music, dabbled in training (most disastrously with the failed career of his son Marvis), dabbled in character reconstruction. To no great effect.
It's too bad. Frazier forever confused defeat with disgrace, as if he wasn't as ennobled in Manila as in Madison Square Garden. Well, that is how we usually keep score. But not many who saw those fights, such demonstrations of human determination that even today we wince at their extremes, would make the same mistake.