As a young kid growing up in New York, two of my initial sports icons were both named Frazier. The first was flashy Knicks point guard Walt “Clyde” Frazier, the other a no-nonsense fireplug heavyweight named Smokin’ Joe. The latter, of course, became forever intertwined with Muhammad Ali for their three epic battles, the first of which occurred over 40 years ago now. Joe Frazier was recently diagnosed with liver cancer (I just found out about this over the weekend) and last night passed away.
He beat Muhammad Ali in the Fight of the Century, battled him nearly to the death in the Thrilla in Manila. Then Joe Frazier spent the rest of his life trying to fight his way out of Ali’s shadow.
That was one fight Frazier never could win.
He was once a heavyweight champion, and a great one at that. Ali would say as much after Frazier knocked him down in the 15th round en route to becoming the first man to beat Ali at Madison Square Garden in March 1971.
But he bore the burden of being Ali’s foil, and he paid the price. Bitter for years about the taunts his former nemesis once threw his way, Frazier only in recent times came to terms with what happened in the past and said he had forgiven Ali for everything he said.
Ali indeed treated Frazier terribly, even after it was later revealed Frazier helped Ali financially when Ali was banned from fighting.
Frazier, who died Monday night after a brief battle with liver cancer at the age of 67, will forever be linked to Ali. But no one in boxing would ever dream of anointing Ali as The Greatest unless he, too, was linked to Smokin’ Joe.
“You can’t mention Ali without mentioning Joe Frazier,” said former AP boxing writer Ed Schuyler Jr. “He beat Ali, don’t forget that.”
They fought three times, twice in the heart of New York City and once in the morning in a steamy arena in the Philippines. They went 41 rounds together, with neither giving an inch and both giving it their all.
In their last fight in Manila in 1975, they traded punches with a fervor that seemed unimaginable among heavyweights. Frazier gave almost as good as he got for 14 rounds, then had to be held back by trainer Eddie Futch as he tried to go out for the final round, unable to see.
“Closest thing to dying that I know of,” Ali said afterward.
After winning the 1971 bout, Frazier held the title until January 1973, when he was destroyed by George Foreman in the fight made famous for Howard Cosell’s “Down Goes Frayzhuh!” call, a brutal beating if ever there was one.
I saw a clip of Ali at a football game over the weekend and he looked incredibly frail. When I heard of Frazier’s passing this morning it reminded me that Ali himself may not have much time left. Surely today he’s feeling nostalgic in his twilight.
He reacted to the news:
“The world has lost a great champion,” Ali wrote. “I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration. My sympathy goes out to his family and loved ones.”