Remembering Smokin' Joe

Joe Frazier, who died on Tuesday, will be forever known for his fights with Muhammad Ali.

Joe Frazier will be forever known for what he did on two dates: March 8, 1971, and Oct. 1, 1975. The first was arguably the biggest fight in boxing history; the second was one of the very best. Both pitted Frazier against Muhammad Ali, the man with whom he will forever be linked.

The son of sharecroppers, Frazier grew up on a farm that, he wrote in his autobiography, "had 10 acres, and two mules, Buck and Jenny, to work them." The land, he wrote, was what country folk called "white dirt, which is another way of saying it isn't worth a damn." It was a life of extreme poverty that Frazier escaped the way he knew best: he fought his way out. From the day that an uncle looked at his stocky build and said he would be "the next Joe Louis," Frazier hung a makeshift heavybag – a burlap sack filled with rags, corn cobs and Spanish moss, with a brick in the middle – from the branch of a tree and pounded it relentlessly.

At age 15, he hopped on a train to Philadelphia, and never looked back. He won Golden Gloves tournaments as an amateur and, ultimately, in 1964 he secured Olympic Gold. The following year, he turned professional. By 1968, New York recognized him as the heavyweight champion, and in 1970 he defeated Jimmy Ellis to add the World Boxing Association and World Boxing Council titles, and become undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

Well, almost.

Loitering loudly in the shadows was a man whom many regarded as the true champion: Muhammad Ali, who had been stripped of his titles in 1967 for refusing induction into the armed forces on religious grounds. Frazier had supported Ali during what would be a three-year exile from the sport, and even petitioned President Richard Nixon to grant him the right to return to the ring. And yet, when Ali was finally able to resume his fistic career, he aimed the verbal taunts for which he had long been famed squarely at Frazier. Ali portrayed himself as the anti-establishment figure, the man who was fighting against the war and for African Americans; he derided Frazier, by way of contrast, as an Uncle Tom, and although his aim was to hype the fight, the insults burned Frazier to the core, as did Ali's repeatedly calling him ‘ignorant.' Ali succeeded in his aim in building their inevitable confrontation to gargantuan levels: when they met in the ring in Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971, the clash was dubbed The Fight of the Century. "Everybody who was anybody was there," recalls boxing historian Bert Sugar. "They were scalping hundred-dollar tickets for a thousand dollars outside. I saw one lady hold up her hand with her ticket to come in, and somebody grabbed it from her and ran. There were people coming in with white ermine coats and matching hats, and that was just the guys. Limousines lined up at Madison Square Garden for what seemed like 50 blocks." Actor Burt Lancaster provided commentary for closed-circuit TV audiences. Frank Sinatra was there – as a ringside photographer for Life magazine.

The fight itself was brutal: Ali taking an early lead, but Frazier taking over with his trademark left hooks to the body and head. He even had answers for Ali's taunts:

"God told me you're going to lose," Ali said to him in the ring.

"Your god's in the wrong house tonight," Frazier retorted.

In the fifteenth and final round, a crunching Frazier left hook knocked Ali down. Ali climbed to his feet and made the final bell, but Frazier had emerged victorious.

Still, the hatred remained. They met a second time, after Frazier had lost his title to George Foreman, and such was the enmity that they started grappling on the set during an interview with Howard Cosell a few days before the bout. That second fight was forgettable, but their third encounter – in the cauldron of Manila, on Oct. 1, 1975, after Ali had regained his title from Foreman – was anything but.

Again, Ali took an early lead in the first third of the fight. Again, Frazier bulled and battered his way back into the contest. Again, the two exchanged verbal jabs.

"Old Joe Frazier, they told me you were washed up," whispered Ali.

"They lied, pretty boy," hissed Frazier.

Somehow, Ali found an extra gear in the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth rounds, battering Frazier's face and all but closing both his eyes. At the end of that fourteenth round, Frazier's trainer Eddie Futch stopped the fight. "It's all over," Futch said. "No one will ever forget what you did here today." Almost immediately afterward, Ali collapsed in the ring. He said of the fight that it was the closest to death he had ever been.

Frazier never truly forgave Ali for his insults; certainly he never forgot. Asked once what he thought about Ali, stricken with Parkinson's, lighting the Olympic flame in Atlanta in 1996, he growled that "they should have thrown him in" the cauldron of fire. Ali, however, especially in his later years, never wavered in his public admiration for his foe.

"I'm sorry Joe Frazier is mad at me. I'm sorry I hurt him," he said. "Joe Frazier is a good man, and I couldn't have done what I did without him, and he couldn't have done what he did without me. And if God ever calls me to a holy war, I want Joe Frazier fighting beside me."


‘Smokin'Joe Frazier (Jan. 12, 1944 – Nov. 7, 2011) pictured Oct. 21, 2006, in Philadelphia. (Corbis)

Joe Frazier reaches out with a left as Muhammad Ali pulls back during the first round of their 15-round title fight on Oct. 1, 1975. Later Frazier suffers a TKO in the 14th round and Ali remains the middleweight champion of the world. (Corbis)