Smokin' Joe Frazier's talent and ferocity made him one of boxing's greatest champions. But not quite the greatest.
An unwilling villain, Frazier made beautiful music with Ali
Every great saga needs a bad guy. And no one played the bad guy like Smokin' Joe Frazier. Except Frazier, who died of cancer on Monday, reluctantly played the villain only because boxing already had it's hero.
Perhaps unfairly, Frazier's career is defined by the role he played as the nemesis of the greatest boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali. Although from a desperately poor background, Frazier was painted by Ali as an establishment figure, loved by "white" America, while Ali claimed to fight on behalf of "his" own people. Ali's words hurt Frazier more than punches ever could, but unlike in the ring, he had no answer.
"Frazier is so ugly that he should donate his face to the US Bureau of Wildlife," was a typical Ali barb. Although he claimed otherwise, Frazier carried his resentment of Ali until very late in his life.
It was Frazier greatest gift, and curse, that he was a contemporary of Ali in boxing's golden era. That era was also graced by George Foreman, Ken Norton and Jimmy Ellis.
He was the Antonio Salieri to Ali's Wolfgang Mozart: forever in the shadow of his more eloquent, more pretty and more loved rival.
Frazier claimed that Ali needed him as much as he needed Ali. "Ali always said I would be nothing without him," Frazier said. "But who would he have been without me?"
In reality, Ali's greatness transcended boxing. Frazier's began and ended with his talent inside the ring. But what talent it was.
In any other era his supremacy over the heavyweight division would have been total; in the modern one, it would have been embarrassing.
Frazier became heavyweight Champion in 1970 by beating Ellis, but it was his "Fight of the Century" against Ali in 1971 that has gone down in legend. The fight split the US: at that point, Ali was hated by a mainstream America still seething at his refusal to serve in Vietnam. Frazier was the pro-war reigning champion painted by Ali as the white man's "Uncle Tom". The world's eyes were on New York's Madison Square Garden and celebrities scrounged for ringside seats. Even Frank Sinatra could only gain access by acting as a Life magazine photographer.
In the 15th round of a bruising battle, Frazier hit Ali with a left a hook so devastating, yet so majestically balletic, it knocked him off his feet. Salieri had composed a masterpiece to which Mozart had no answer.
Miraculously, Ali recovered to see out the round. But for the first time in his career, he was a beaten man. It was Frazier's finest hour.
His lowpoint was delivered by an even badder guy, George Foreman. Compared to Frazier, and even Ali, Foreman was positively beastly.
When they clashed in 1973, Foreman did not so much beat Frazier as totally annihilate him, knocking him down six times in two rounds. Unlike in today's boxing world, where you have to try very hard not to be a world champion at some division or another, Frazier would never regain the title.
But in true bad guy style, he would come back, for two sequel fights with Ali. Both he lost, heroically. First in 1974 in New York, and then in 1975, memorably in the "Thriller in Manila", a fight so punishing that arguably neither man ever recovered from it completely. As the bell rang for the 15th round, Frazier's coach, Eddie Futch, threw the towel just as Angelo Dundee was about to do so for Ali.
"This is the closest to death I've been," Ali said after the fight. It was effectively the end of Smokin' Joe's career.
But history should judge Frazier more kindly than Ali ever did: as one of the greatest of all time. And it shouldn't be forgotten, that for one fleeting moment back in 1971, as Ali lay on the canvas, history could have turned out very differently. For a split second Salieri was the greatest composer of all time.
"I always bring out the best in men I fight, but Joe Frazier, I'll tell the world right now, brings out the best in me," Ali said after the Manila fight. "I'm gonna tell ya, that's one helluva man, and God bless him."
Rest in peace, Champ.
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