Joe Frazier, the man responsible for defining Ali’s post-ban legacy, died Monday night at the age of 67. Widely regarded as less of a boxer and more of a gritty, left-jab-favouring champion fighter, Frazier succumbed to liver cancer in a hospice facility- and leaves the world with memories of the jet-black, shortish, stout man flat-footed in the ring, facing a dancing, arrogant people’s Champion, forming a massive cog in a wheel that probably ran the greatest sporting rivalry ever seen.
A crucial part of probably two of the greatest boxing matches in the history of the sport- the 1971 Madison Square Garden victory over Ali to retain the WBA title, and the 1975 ‘Thriller in Manila’ bout- that much resembled Rocky Balboa and his eyes-glued-shut conditions on screen simultaneously. Ali took home honours over their careers with a 2-1 head-to-head, but he will be the first to admit that Frazier was the man who brought him closest to God in that 1975 battle Royale.
Nobody else kept coming back for more, nobody else savoured punishment like the juiciest pork roast ever, and nobody walked eye-to-eye with the great Ali for such a prolonged period of time.
If there was ever a fighter who created the whole meaning of the word ‘rivalry’, it was Frazier and his continued hatred for Ali and everything that the Champion stood for. One was a Afro-American man’s self-proclaimed Messiah, and the other remained the all-American man’s great hope.
It would be a bit far-fetched to define the man without bringing the other fighter into the argument, for Frazier would have only remained great if not for those 3 bouts. What catapulted him to a rare legendary status- and to the ultimate Batman to Ali’s Superman- were his repeated clashes with the Champion outside the ring in the public eye.
Frazier wouldn’t have been half the fighter he was without Ali, of course. But as he often asked, ‘Where would Ali have been if not for me?’
1971 -Known as the Bout of the century, here is Ali’s first EVER loss- in a 15 round marathon against then-undefeated heavyweight Champion Smokin’ Joe Frazier.
1974 -The second fight was a non-title bout back in the Garden. It was a unanimous decision- and Ali finally pulled one over a broken Frazier- who was fresh from a slaughter by the third legend of the trio George Foreman. Frazier was Champion no more, but neither was Ali, at this moment.
1975 -Finally, the Thriller in Manila had Frazier face Champion Ali (who had won it from Foreman only a year back) on Oct 1st, 1975. Widely known as the most publicized bout in Boxing History, it featured the most extreme display of boxing brutality, which had Frazier quit after the 15th round because he couldn’t see anymore. Rest assured, the fight could have gone on for 10 more rounds, if the fighters were indeed indestructible.
Joe Frazier was flawed, especially when he came up against the giant George Foreman (known for the other ‘greatest’ fight- The Rumble in the Jungle with Ali). Four of his losses were split, against two of the best fighters of his generation- Ali and Foreman. He lost against no lesser mortal. Known to come up short in the big fights, evidently from his battles, Frazier still cut the sport’s most fierce fighter- what he lacked in talent, skill and movement, he made up with sheer grit and grind.
Expect the world to go into collective mourning when the ‘other’ guy Ali passes away, currently suffering from Parkinson’s, and expect sport’s deepest dark hole since the death of Senna back in the early-90s.
But ask yourself this, why are the ‘Greatest Ever’ tags bestowed upon Champions like Ali, Senna and Federer? Would the world care as much if there wasn’t a Frazier, Prost or Nadal that came along to hand over minor moments of humble mortality to these great heroes?
In the end, they matter just as much. And they will be remembered in the same breath.