Ali v Frazier: the fight rages on

Their epic battles in the early 70s enthralled the sporting world, but 25 years on Joe Frazier still has not forgiven Muhammad Ali for the taunts and insults that were an integral part of a unique sporting rivalry

Many years after Joe Louis and Tommy Farr went 15 hard rounds for the world heavyweight championship, they met up at a function in London. "Every time I hear your name mentioned my nose bleeds," Farr chuckled as they shook hands. "Tommy, that was some fight you gave me," Louis replied.

Howard Winstone had barely arrived in Mexico City to watch the 1968 Olympic Games when he found himself out on the town with Vicente Saldivar, against whom he had three titanic struggles for the featherweight title. "I hadn't set eyes on Saldivar since our third scrap but somehow he discovered I was there and I had a great time with him," the Welshman recalled.

Probably, in the imagination of most people, no two fighters are drawn closer by this mysterious, dignifying bond than Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, who fought each other three times, twice in championship bouts that for drama and intensity are considered to be without equal in the annals of boxing.

A sad fact, however, one made brutally clear in a recently published autobiography, Smokin' Joe, is that Frazier can find only bitterness in his heart for the stricken former three-times heavyweight champion.

"Truth is," Frazier told his ghostwriter, Phil Berger, "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. 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."

Known for years among people in boxing, Frazier's deep-rooted resentment was first aired publicly at a press conference in Atlanta in July where he spoke out vehemently against the choice of Ali as the final bearer of the Olympic torch. Calling up the past in a rambling diatribe, he dismissed Ali as a "draft dodger", implied racism - "didn't like his white brothers" - and suggested that he himself, as the Olympic champion at heavyweight in 1964, would have been a better selection 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."

Worse was the savage remark Frazier uttered after watching Ali raise the torch with a trembling arm while millions worldwide looked on anxiously. "It would have been a good thing if he had lit the torch and fallen in. If I had the chance, I would have pushed him in."

Asked to comment on Ali's condition recently, the laboured movements and speech difficulties symptomatic of Parkinson's Syndrome -which in Ali's case is most likely the result of repeated blows to the head - Frazier mimed the murderous left hook that brought him from a dirt-poor childhood to the pinnacle of boxing, and said to Bill Nack, of the American magazine Sports Illustrated: "He's got Joe Frazier-itis."

As Nack states, nobody struck Ali's head harder and more repeatedly than Frazier. So why the total absence of compassion, the bitterness that rises like bile in Frazier whenever Ali's name occurs in conversation?

There is a clue in Frazier's refusal to call Ali other than by the name he was given. Never Ali, always Clay. "When I first began knowing Clay, he wasn't a bad guy to be around," Frazier told Berger. "We'd talk and joke the way friends do. Not that we were what you would call friends. There was always an edge that kept us from being real close. But we got on... then came the problem with the Selective Service [Ali's refusal to be drafted for Vietnam], and Clay's life became more complicated. And difficult. The sucker couldn't be certain he'd ever fight again. Me? I was always there for the guy. The whole time Clay was stripped of his title, I never said a bad word about him, even though I didn't agree with what he'd done... Sometimes the press would try to get me to badmouth Clay, or trash his religion. But I never played along with that. I'd tell them his religion was his own business."

It was on Ali's return from exile that Frazier felt the first stirrings of paranoia. He was the heavyweight champion, a solid citizen, but Ali, his stand against the Vietnam war vindicated by the realisation of its futility, represented, for an increasing number of whites as well as the majority of blacks, a force for social change.

"THEE Greatest, he called himself," Frazier said. "Well, he wasn't The Greatest, and he certainly wasn't THEE Greatest. Whatever God you pray to, whatever direction you face when you go to your knees, there's only one THEE. But this scamboogah had the nerve to put himself above the Lord. Well, it became my mission to show him the error of foolish pride. Beat him into it."

What hurt Frazier most was the demeaning personal nature of Ali's rhetoric. "Clay has since stated that he was only selling tickets," Frazier goes on, "but there were things, hurtful things, that I couldn't stomach. To hear it from him, I was a lame specimen of a black man, a kind of Stepin' Fetchit in boxing trunks. He said that I wasn't a real champion and called me an Uncle Tom... cruel and unworthy. And in its way sadistic. Clay knew the facts - knew the hard road I'd travelled. Knew the struggle a black man had, growing up in Beaufort, South Carolina. Knew that in saying what he did, he was playing me cheap and leaving Joe Frazier, and his children, open to ridicule - worse, he was encouraging it, leaving me to see on a cover of a black magazine, Black Sports, a blurb asking: `Is Joe Frazier a White Champion in a Black Skin?'"

During the five years between their first momentous contest at Madison Square Garden on 8 March 1971, and the thunder of their final meeting, in Manila on 1 October 1975, Frazier found himself completely overshadowed by the supreme sports figure of this century.

Nack writes: "He [Frazier] is haunted by his old tormentor, the very figure he did most to 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 times."

Ali treads carefully now, each step a measure of impairment, but there is no release for Frazier. That old light-up-the-room grin. "Joe Fraysha?" he mumbles. "You seen the gorilla? From Manila?"

Manila left them utterly exhausted, broken by a contest of such savagery that when Eddie Futch scissored the gloves from Frazier's hands at the end of the 14th round he was fearing for his fighter's life.

What followed left a scar on Frazier's mind. "Bruised, weary and dehydrated in that dressing-room in Quezon City, I wasn't thinking about the place in history this fight I'd just fought would have. I had lost, and that was as deep as my reality went. While I sat there, applying the ice pack to my eyes, word came from Clay's dressing-room that he wanted to see Marvis [Frazier's son].

"When Marvis got over there, Clay was lying on a padded table. His skin was ashy and his right eye discoloured. His lower lip was scraped pink. There were welts and bruises all over his body. He looked like a wax museum version of himself. When he saw Marvis, he struggled to sit up and shake his hand. Then he said, `Tell your father all the stuff I said about him - I didn't mean it. Your father's a helluva man. I couldn't have taken the punches he took today.'

"Well, it may have satisfied Clay's conscience to excuse his years of trashing me like that. And it may have touched Marvis's heart to hear it from the scamboogah's lips. But it didn't change a goddam thing for me. Why tell it to Marvis? Why not be man enough to say what he felt to me, to my face? Yeah, he'd proven himself in the ring - I'd give him that. He'd stood up to punches that would have put holes in concrete. But as a man, Clay was so knee-deep in ego that in the end he couldn't bring himself to do the right thing."

A darker side to Ali showed itself after he joined the Black Muslims in 1964. "Essentially a sweet guy," Ali's ring doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, told Nack, "whose whole demeanour aims to amuse, to be entertained, to be liked. But there was a period when he wasn't particularly pleasant to anyone."

In Ali's last but one fight before his licence was revoked in 1967, he gave Ernie Terrell a terrible beating for calling him by the "slave name'': Cassius Clay. "What's my name?" he demanded when pouring punches in Terrell's face, causing him to have double vision for weeks afterwards.

"There was an awful mean streak in Ali," Dave Wolf, then a Frazier associate, told Nack. "And he did to Joe verbally what he did to Terrell physically."

A short while ago Ali learned that an accident had cost Frazier a toe. Aware that he was referred to only as Clay in Frazier's book, Ali rang his biographer, Tom Hauser. "God isn't going to like me for this," he mumbled, "but the nigger deserved it."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Suited and booted in the Lanvin show at the Paris menswear collections
fashionParis Fashion Week
Arts and Entertainment
Kara Tointon and Jeremy Piven star in Mr Selfridge
tvActress Kara Tointon on what to expect from Series 3
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
footballBrighton vs Arsenal match report
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project