Frazier battled Ali in timeless trilogy
"Joe Frazier would come out smoking. If you hit him, he liked it. If you knocked him down, you only made him mad," says George Foreman on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
In the ring, Joe Frazier was a bull who didn't need a red cape. Provocation or prodding wasn't necessary for him to come charging after the man in front of him, his head down, his fists acting as sharp horns and inflicting similar damage.
And it was that relentlessness that made him the perfect foil for his nemesis, Muhammad Ali. Discussing Frazier's boxing career without bringing up Ali is like talking about Neil Armstrong without mentioning the moon. The two are forever linked, thanks to their three timeless bouts -- Frazier won only the first, and the third was a near-death experience for both of them -- the contrasting styles with which they fought, and the vitriol they hurled at each other for so long.
For years, Frazier has voiced his bitterness over the way Ali had insulted him, over how Ali had called him "ugly," "a gorilla," and an "Uncle Tom." His anger was never in fuller view than when Ali, stricken with Parkinson's disease, lit the Olympic flame at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, and Frazier said he would have liked to have "pushed him in."
"Technically the loser of two of the three fights, [Frazier] seems not to understand that they ennobled him as much as they did Ali," wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, "that the only way we know of Ali's greatness is because of Frazier's equivalent greatness, that in the end there was no real difference between the two of them as fighters, and when sports fans and historians think back, they will think of the fights as classics, with no identifiable winner or loser. These are men who, like it or not, have become prisoners of each other and those three nights."
Born on Jan. 12, 1944, in Beaufort County, S.C., Joe was the 11th child of Rubin and Dolly Frazier. The Fraziers had a 12th child, David, who died of diphtheria at nine months old.
Rubin was a sharecropper, who, according to Frazier's 1996 autobiography, "Smokin' Joe," ran a moonshine still and grew "this musk, which I figure now must've been tobacco or marijuana."
By 1959, Joe was on his own, and that year, at 15, he moved to New York to live with an older brother, Tommy, and Tommy's wife, Ollie. He had a difficult time finding work, so difficult that he began stealing cars and selling them to a Brooklyn junkyard for $50 apiece.
"It got to a point, finally, where I was just too embarrassed to keep leaning on my brother," Frazier wrote. "I decided to head to Philadelphia, where I had relatives that would put me up, and see if my luck would change."
Did it ever. While working at a slaughterhouse, he punched sides of beef in a refrigerated room (giving Sylvester Stallone some inspiration for "Rocky") and took up bona-fide boxing in December 1961 when, 30 pounds overweight at 220, he entered a Police Athletic League gym in the city.
Frazier began traveling around the country, boxing regularly. He was the Middle Atlantic Golden Gloves heavyweight champ for three straight years but lost to Buster Mathis in the finals of the 1964 U.S. Olympic Trials. However, during a subsequent exhibition bout between the two, Mathis injured his hand, paving the way for Frazier to replace him at the Olympics in Tokyo.
Despite fighting the final bout with a broken left thumb, Frazier won gold at the '64 Olympics by decision over German Hans Huber.
Later in the year, Frazier learned he had cataracts in his left eye. Though he was visually impaired, he turned pro as some Philadelphia boxing fans formed a group called Cloverlay and bankrolled him to the tune of $20,000.
Frazier's pro debut came on Aug. 16, 1965, and within 12 months he was 11-0, with every victory coming by knockout.
While Ali defied the U.S. Army in 1967, refusing to be inducted, the WBA stripped him of his heavyweight title. Frazier bypassed an eight-boxer tournament the WBA established to determine a new champion -- a tournament that included Floyd Patterson, Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Ellis -- and padded his record against other fighters.
He knocked out Buster Mathis in the 11th round in 1968 to become the New York State champion, floored Quarry in eight rounds in 1969, and dispatched Ellis, the WBA champ, in five on Feb. 16, 1970, to become the undisputed heavyweight champion.
Then Ali returned, as his boxing license was reinstated. On Dec. 30, 1970, the two signed to fight, and the name-calling began.
"A white lawyer kept him out of jail. And he's going to Uncle Tom me," Frazier wrote in his autobiography. "THEE Greatest, he called himself. Well, he wasn't The Greatest, and he certainly wasn't THEE Greatest. It became my mission to show him the error of his foolish pride. Beat it into him."
On March 8, 1971, in the "Fight of the Century" at Madison Square Garden, Frazier landed a left hook in the 15th round that sent Ali careening to the canvas. The unbeaten Frazier won a unanimous decision as he handed Ali the first defeat of his pro career.
Frazier successfully defended his title against Terry Daniels and Ron Stander (both on early-round TKOs) before meeting George Foreman on Jan. 22, 1973, in Jamaica. Stronger and quicker, Foreman knocked Frazier down six times in the first two rounds before the fight was stopped. Frazier's title was gone.
A year later, he met Ali again, in a non-title bout. On Jan. 28, 1974, in a fight to determine who would get the next shot to dethrone Foreman, Ali won a decision in Madison Square Garden, though Frazier and several sportswriters, including The New York Times' Red Smith and Dave Anderson, thought he had won.
With the cataract in his left eye growing increasingly worse, he defeated Quarry and Ellis again, then agreed to fight Ali one final time, on Oct. 1, 1975, in Manila. In arguably the greatest heavyweight bout in boxing history -- Ali called it the "closest thing to dyin' I know of" -- the two men clubbed each other with their fists for 14 rounds. Frazier's trainer, Eddie Futch, wouldn't let his fighter come out for the 15th.
"Once more," Sports Illustrated's Mark Kram wrote of the "Thrilla in Manila," "had Frazier taken the child of the gods to hell and back."
Frazier lives in Philadelphia, owns and runs a gym there. His health is not the best as he has diabetes and high blood pressure. He and his nemesis have alternated between public apologies and public insults.
One exchange came in 2001 after Ali told The New York Times he was sorry for what he said about Frazier before their first fight. At first, Frazier accepted the apology, but then
"He didn't apologize to me -- he apologized to the paper," Frazier said in a June issue of TV Guide. "I'm still waiting [for him] to say it to me."
Ali's response: "If you see Frazier, you tell him he's still a gorilla."