It was no wonder Joe Frazier was so bitter. He was made to seem the foil, a mere accomplice in mythology, consigned to a supporting role in Muhammad Ali's extravagant, ego-driven drama. It is a harsh truth that if you participate in the most exciting rivalry of a century, it does you little good even to win one of its three bouts. The verdict of history is decisive, and it is permanent, and men like Frazier, who stumble at the precipice, are forever remaindered on the heap of losers, their vinegary claims to justice lost in the courts of public opinion. It was no wonder, then, that when Ali lit the Olympic torch in 1996, his trembling hands viewed as a physical artifact of heroism by an adoring world, Frazier allowed that if he'd had his way, he'd have pitched Ali into the fire.
This is an article from the Nov. 21, 2011 issue
Smokin' Joe, as he was called for his furious ring presence, was reduced to Smolderin' Joe in his later years, his resentment becoming nearly as famous as his swarming style. By many rankings Frazier, who succumbed to liver cancer in Philadelphia on the night of Nov. 7, at age 67, was one of the 10 best heavyweights who ever fought, holding versions of the title from 1968 to '73. Yet he was only briefly the best of his day. That was in 1971, following his brutal 15-round victory over Ali at Madison Square Garden. That fight, so keenly anticipated, was more a cultural milestone than a sporting event, the two men made to stand for opposite sides of the most debated issues of the day, as if the spectacle of their skill and desperation wouldn't have been enough.
Ali, after a 3½-year exile caused by his refusal on religious grounds to serve in the military, represented the counterculture, becoming the mouthpiece of a new generation. Frazier, for simplicity's sake, was cast as the establishment figure, his roots as a sharecropper's son from South Carolina turned slaughterhouse worker in Philadelphia obliged to stand for the status quo. It was, additionally, Ali's flash vs. Frazier's brawn, a contest between style and substance. And it was even more: To Frazier's everlasting puzzlement, Ali introduced race into their building rivalry, calling Frazier an Uncle Tom. This was not fair on several counts. Frazier had befriended Ali and supported him during his exile, both publicly and, with small donations, privately. And even if he had exploited Ali's absence for his own gain, wresting away Ali's heavyweight title without defeating him in the ring, he had generously agreed to a 50--50 split for their 1971 meeting, guaranteeing his pal $2.5 million.
Yet in one of the most vicious fights ever staged, it was Frazier's puzzled resolution—"What's holding him up?" he asked about Ali during the fight—that won out in a unanimous decision. But it came at a price, as all their meetings would; Frazier required a three-week hospital stay while Ali, knocked down and all, was free to continue to present his case as the wronged warrior.
The ensuing interim damaged the inevitable rematch: Frazier lost his title to George Foreman and, to boot, became the butt of a catchphrase (Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! the set piece of all Howard Cosell impersonations). Ali struggled with the likes of Ken Norton. Yet inevitable it was, the money being there, and almost three years later the two fighters met again at the Garden. Ali won in a comparatively desultory bout, as if the two didn't fully engage because they were too wary of the lasting damage each could inflict.
But their rivalry would not be resolved so easily. In 1975—Ali now 33, Frazier 31—they met again in the near-death experience that would ever after be known as the Thrilla in Manila. Ali was even crueler in his prefight taunts, exploiting the fact that gorilla rhymed with the venue. Frazier, by turns mystified and hurt, was provoked beyond the requirements of the bout. While Ali would always say he was only boosting the box office, Frazier could never accept any explanation for attacks that might affect his children's impression of him. "Look at my beautiful kids," he'd say. "How can I be a gorilla?"
But not even animus could account for what happened that morning in the Philippines. It was such a violent affair—recklessness tilting it first Ali's way, then Frazier's way and then Ali's again—that it seemed less a boxing match than an exploration of man's capacities, a test of his will to win or at least survive. But once it turned Ali's way again in the 12th round, too much had gone before for yet another reversal. There wasn't anything left in either man. Before the 15th and final round Frazier's trainer, Eddie Futch, called it quits, saving his fighter from certain ruin, even as Ali was instructing his corner to cut his gloves off. It was victory, but by attrition.
Ali called it "the closest thing to dying I know of," and he didn't know the half of it. Their careers were essentially over that day, their 41 rounds of shared agony making any further discoveries in the ring unnecessary, or even possible. Frazier lost a rematch to Foreman and called it quits. Ali managed to dominate the game for several years more, but only on the basis of his personality—he was spent. Even then he was beginning a slow and ironic decline, Parkinson's eventually rendering him rigid and mute, the final price for all those wars.
Ali's respect for Frazier was enormous, and he apologized for his name-calling on several occasions. "I couldn't have done what I did without him," he once said.
Frazier repaid the compliment: "We were gladiators. I didn't ask no favors of him, and he didn't ask none of me." They recognized that their destinies were entwined, that neither would have achieved his greatness without the other. But Ali could afford to concede the point, being the most popular athlete, even personality, in the world. Frazier, who spent the rest of his life living above his gym in Philadelphia, did not have the comfort of the world's goodwill—he lived in an age that would reward style over substance every time—and so maintained his half of the blood feud as vigorously as possible, even seeming to take a grim satisfaction in Ali's poor health, proof of who really won that day in Manila.
That a feel-good reconciliation would elude the two men who shaped such a magnificent rivalry is apt. Even if they were more like brothers than foes—who else could understand the kind of pride that forced them through those three battles?—fighters like them could never really enjoy a cease-fire, could never drop their hands, as if they alone knew what man was truly capable of.