James Lawton: Boxing's best support act? Far from it. Frazier was an authentic warrior
His clash with Ali at Madison Square Garden in 1971 was truly a fight of the ages. A symphony of action, building, wave upon crashing wave
Even now, 35 years on, you can conjure the excitement as if it was yesterday, coming in off the sidewalk of North Broad Street, Philadelphia, into Joe Frazier's gym and finding a place amid the sweaty, cramped glory created by arguably the most ferociously game heavyweight who ever lived.
Arguably, did we say? If we need corroboration, where better to find it than in the words of Muhammad Ali, who teased and baited him mercilessly outside of the ropes but inside them was twice required to fight to his very limits and, when all the wounds, at least the superficial ones, were healed, declared, "Joe Frazier brought the best out of me."
The memory of how he did it, this supremely combative son of a South Carolina sharecropper who fathered 13 children and eked out his bare living making moonshine in the woods, was still so vivid that when his heart finally stopped beating this week, at the age of 67, it was hard to believe that the world was not suddenly a quieter, less dramatic place.
It was not the best of times for Frazier when you saw him in his gym, which over the years had become a Mecca for the toughest disenfranchised kids of the hardest streets of the City of Brotherly Love.
Yet, at 32, he still had his resilient dreams. He had lost the Thrilla in Manila to Ali six months earlier and in a few months time he would suffer a second crushing loss to George Foreman, the man nature had made and picked out as his designated destroyer.
But then Joe Frazier was never beaten; he was, at worst, in a position of temporary disadvantage
"Some people think I'm finished but I'm not," he announced. "I wanted to fight that last round in Manila and if I had been allowed to, who knows what might have happened? It means that I can still think of myself as the champion of the world. I can fight on."
Most people had the bleakest idea of what might have happened if the fight had gone its full hazardous course – and not least the brilliant trainer Eddie Futch who insisted it was over, at the end of the 14th, when he realised that his man was fighting blind. However, it is also true that later Ali admitted he was at the point of demanding that his own famous cornerman, Angelo Dundee, cut away his gloves.
There might be a temptation to cast Frazier, however subliminally, in the role of boxing's greatest supporting act but this would be to deny him the night of his life, when he beat Ali in The Fight of the Century at Madison Square Garden in 1971.
It was a fight that engaged the world – and had Frank Sinatra, no less, taking a photographic assignment from Life magazine in order to land a place at ringside – and also one Frazier had helped to create by his fierce campaign for the reinstatement of Ali after the three-year banishment that followed his refusal to enlist in the US Army on the grounds that he had no quarrel with "them Viet Cong".
If Frazier felt betrayed by Ali's taunting hype before the fight, by his suggestion that his opponent was an "Uncle Tom" at a time when black Americans had to find a radical voice, he exerted dramatic revenge, knocking the great man down and gaining a close but generally applauded points decision.
It was truly a fight of the ages. It was a symphony of action, building, wave upon crashing wave and when it was over there was the rarest sense that every expectation had been fulfilled.
Frazier's great triumph, built on a superbly aggressive approach and a withering left hook, was eroded sensationally by the ambush worked in Kingston, Jamaica, by Foreman.
Promoter Don King was part of Frazier's entourage before the fight but he switched allegiance in the ring, where Frazier was pummelled mercilessly by the bigger man. Someone remarked, "Don, I thought you were with Joe," and was told, "No, I'm with the winner."
This was merely to fuel the rage of Frazier. He nursed his wounds down the years but he was always ready to carry them into the ring. Ali, aware now of the dangers of giving the man from Broad Street any kind of freedom to launch his atavistic attacks, wrapped him up comfortably enough in a second fight at the Garden, winning a unanimous decision.
He saw his last assignment against Frazier as a formality, something to juggle along with a tempestuous affair with the beautiful Veronica Porsche. Ali was the King of the World then, of course, the conqueror of Foreman in the African jungle clearing and it was an authority that seemed to endure its most serious challenge when his wife Belinda, hearing that her young rival was being passed off as the new Mrs Ali, flew into Manila in a fury that made Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew seem like a minor domestic chore.
It was a distraction that Ali realised soon enough might well have carried the most disastrous consequences. Precisely, this was in the seventh round when the champion's presumption that he had weathered the worst of Frazier's pressure was shattered by a new wave of attacks. Ali gathered Frazier into his grasp and whispered into his ear, "Joe, they told me you were all washed up." Frazier replied, "They told you wrong, pretty boy."
The drama, the weight of the fighting, intensified to the point where Futch, who as a young man had sparred with Joe Louis and was generally accepted as boxing's ultimate trainer, realised that it could not go on. He looked into Frazier's eyes and saw only unseeing slits.
For many years Frazier and his family were unforgiving of the decision, believing that Ali was equally vulnerable in those climactic moments, but one day Futch encountered his old fighter's daughter Jackie in Las Vegas. "She said," Futch reported, "that the family had come to understand my decision, saw that I was thinking of their father and that maybe because of the decision they had enjoyed more years with him than they might have had if he had been allowed to fight on."
Joe Frazier would never quite set foot on such a philosophical shore. He had his reconciliations with Ali, but they were always put at risk by his anger and his regrets, his frustration that his career never gave him the kind of financial security he imagined was at hand when he won the Fight of the Century.
Often he insisted he won all of his three fights against Ali; always he seemed to believe that he found himself pitted against not just the greatest heavyweight in history but a conspiracy of fate that, in the end, he could never shake.
That may have been true but it did little to lessen the sense of loss when Joe Frazier failed to beat the count in his last fight this week, when the world indeed became a quieter place. It had lost, as Muhammad Ali was the first to agree, one of its most authentic warriors – and relentless spirits.
Three of a kind: The Ali-Frazier trilogy
Fight One: 8 March 1971
(Madison Square Garden, NY)
The first fight was a brutal affair later dubbed "Fight of the Century". Frazier was two years younger than Ali and, at 27, was in peak condition. Ali, on the other hand, had just been in a brutal confrontation with Oscar Bonavena, winning by TKO in the final round. Preparation was key for Frazier, whose team found a key flaw in Ali's technique which they exploited. They found Ali tended to drop his hand in anticipation of landing a right-hand uppercut. Frazier was told to throw a left hook at the exact moment Ali left himself vulnerable. This led to a knockdown of Ali in the 15th. Frazier dominated a tiring Ali in the later rounds and won a unanimous points decision.
Fight Two: 28 January 1974
(Madison Square Garden, NY)
A fight broke out before the second clash when the pair tussled in a New York TV studio, where "The Greatest" called "Smokin' Joe" ignorant, leading to fisticuffs on the studio floor. In the ring, Ali dominated large parts of the fight, avoiding Frazier's left-hook. Ali continually slowed the pace by clinching but Frazier came to life in spectacular fashion in rounds eight and nine, sending Ali to the ropes with extensive body shots. Ali edged the bout in the judges' opinions but it was a controversial decision as many viewers had Frazier down as a winner on points.
Fight Three: 1 October 1975
The third and final contest, dubbed the "Thrilla in Manila", was a punishing display that eclipsed their first encounter in terms of brutality. A series of fast combinations from Ali led to Frazier's face becoming so bruised around the eyes that only a tiny slit remained. Ali showed no mercy, and knocked Frazier's mouthguard out. Frazier was virtually helpless, effectively fighting blind in the last rounds, and in the 14th he was floored. Eddie Futch, Frazier's trainer, feared the worst and stopped the fight at the end of the round. Frazier protested, shouting: "I want him boss," to which Futch replied "It's all over. No one will forget what you did here today." Ali said it was his toughest ever contest.
Wins: 32 (27 by knockout)
Losses: 4; Draws: 1
Belts: WBC and WBA champion.
Medals: Olympic gold (Tokyo 1964).
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