Holmes and Frazier swap stories
Larry Holmes is standing in the lobby of a posh hotel in Pasadena, belting out a tune that is recognizable only to him as he laughs in between every verse. He is making his way around a breakfast buffet set up near the entrance, dancing as he picks at some fruit and muffins.
While Holmes is lost in his own world, Joe Frazier is being wheeled into the hotel in a wheelchair by his manager, Leslie Wolf. Frazier, wearing a cowboy hat and a gold chain and gripping a cane, is slowly looking at his surroundings as he is taken closer to Holmes.
"Get up, Joe!" Holmes yells to Frazier. "Stop messing around."
Frazier wishes he were messing around as he musters a laugh in between coughs.
"Are you that sick?" Holmes asks him. "Are you OK?"
"If I walk too long I get tired," Frazier says. "I'm old. We do what we got to do."
The man who took Ali to 14 rounds in the "Thrilla in Manila" and 12 rounds in Madison Square Garden and beat him in 15 rounds in "The Fight of the Century" has a hard time standing up for more than 15 seconds before needing to sit down and catch his breath.
Holmes and Frazier can't remember the last time they saw each other but are brought together this morning for breakfast to talk about the man who has defined the careers of every fighter he faced -- Muhammad Ali. The former world heavyweight champions are two of the 10 Ali rivals featured in the award-winning documentary "Facing Ali," which makes its world television premiere Feb. 15 on Spike TV.
As I sit down with both fighters in the corner of the hotel, I ask Frazier whether he has ever come to peace with the racial comments that Ali made about him before their fights. Despite last fighting Ali 35 years ago, Frazier has always resented Ali for calling him an "Uncle Tom," among other things, after Frazier petitioned President Richard Nixon to have Ali's right to box reinstated, which set up their legendary trilogy of matches.
Frazier: That was him, saying the things he said and doing the things he did. I don't worry about it anymore. What he said is what he felt, and you can't control another man's feelings. I don't mind him carrying on like that. That was his style. No one could change that. He's been that way all his life and I've learned to accept that. That was his way of handling me and I've learned to accept that. He had nothing good to say about me [laughs], but that's OK. Being around Larry, I learned to live with him because Larry lived with him. He knows him better than anybody.
Markazi: In doing this documentary, did one Ali moment stick out for you guys?
Holmes: When I kicked his ass! [Laughs]
Frazier: That was good. I don't have one. Ali had his own charisma then. I couldn't say or tell what was really going on in his mind. Especially now, with the way he is, I wouldn't want to know what he's thinking. We've all been in the same sport for so many years and we're sitting here with you talking and having fun, and he can't do that. What the hell went wrong? What happened?
Holmes: I will always remember being with him. Being in the training camps with him as his sparring partner and seeing what a champion is really like and how they act. That was the part that gave me the most pleasure, being around him and Joe Frazier. Even though I was younger than him, I got to live with him and understand what he was going through. As I moved up the line, I took a page out of their book and tried to incorporate it in my book and carry on their legacy. It was a great thrill for me throughout the years to be a friend of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier and remain a friend of both guys.
Markazi: Being friends with Ali and being his sparring partner, how difficult did that make your fight with Ali in 1980 when he probably shouldn't have even been allowed to fight at that stage of his career?
Holmes: It wasn't difficult for me. What made it hard for me was people would say he was old if I beat him and say I never had it if he beat me. At 38 years old, I didn't consider him being an old man. I considered him a champion trying to reclaim his championship, so I had to go out there and do what I had to do. I didn't want anyone to get hurt. I knew that I could beat Muhammad Ali because of all the tough fights he had, and me being his sparring partner, I know what he could do and what he couldn't do. I knew I was going to win the fight, but I didn't know how people would react. I knew they would say what they said, but I handled it the best way I could by winning the fight after Ali quit on the stool like he did. That showed that I was the hero because I didn't kill anybody.
Markazi: They replay a lot of your fights on TV now or do stories about them; is it hard to rehash the past, especially if that past might not be something you want to revisit?
Frazier: No. I don't watch them. It's hard knowing what happened to [Ali]. He can't handle himself. He can't talk. He can't talk to his wife. He can't talk to his son or daughter. He used to be wild, and now he doesn't know what's going on. I don't know what went wrong. It shouldn't be like this.
Markazi: When you two see each other, knowing everything you guys have accomplished and your place in boxing history, what do you guys talk about?
Frazier: Well, we don't have to talk about what we did because we both know what we did, and when you look at what's going on today, you know what we were all about. We did a lot of sacrificing and the traveling and a lot of the hard work to raise the level of boxing.
Holmes: It's always great to see Joe. I always have a good feeling in my heart when I see Joe because he gave me the opportunity to learn as a sparring partner, and I was able to do that. When I see Joe or Ali I get a good feeling, but it's different when I see Ali -- my feelings turn to sadness because you don't want to see a guy like that. A guy that used to talk a lot and now you can't understand what he's saying. When you see him, you want to cry. That's the part that doesn't sit well with me, but I always love seeing Joe.
Markazi: Joe, you had three amazing fights with Ali and only won one but could have easily won all three; do you ever look back and wonder how history would have viewed you guys if you would have won all three or at least two?
Frazier: Well, everyone thinks I lost twice, I think I won all of them. I know and my family knows that I was blind in my left eye. So my right eye was closed and I couldn't see out of my left eye in the last fight, so it's hard to fight when you can't see and that's why I couldn't go anymore and got shut down. I didn't get angry, when those guys call the shots in the corner; they know what they're doing. If they say that's it, that's it, you can't override his word. If I would have went back and been really badly injured, it would have been on the guy in the corner, so I wasn't upset about it. It happened, and I feel like going back at it again. [He begins to laugh and starts shadowboxing before coughing.]
Markazi: Larry, what did you think of the epic fights that Ali and Frazier had, seeing that you were on the card during the last two fights and served as a sparring partner?
Holmes: That's right, I was happy to be on the card during the last two fights Ali and Joe fought in Manila and in Madison Square Garden. I was there with Joe because I served for Joe as a sparring partner at that time and I know Joe had his heart all the way into the fight. So when two guys who talked a lot of [junk] to each other and knew what the game is all about went all-out, it was great. It was hard because I hopped off one bandwagon and on another and liked both guys very much, but the best man won in both those fights I saw.
Markazi: Larry, do you every wish you got to fight Ali or Frazier in their prime? Despite having one of the most dominant careers in the history of the heavyweight division with 48 straight wins, 26 successful title defenses, I think you got knocked down for not having that iconic rival.
Holmes: Everything happens for a reason, and I can't really worry about that. The guys that I did fight I thought they were just as good as Ali and Frazier when I fought them. Everybody has a time and place, and I feel that I was put in my time and spot for a reason. I don't regret being in the spot that I was in, and I don't wish that I was in the spot Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier were in because I knew that I made the most of the spot I was in. I don't regret anything. I will say to you and everybody that I think I was the best. I could beat everybody from 1909 to today. That's the way I feel. They can rank me, but I don't care about that because in my opinion, I was the best of all time.
Markazi: Joe, why do you think the fights that you had with Ali still resonate today? Don't you think we've dissected every round as much as we possibly can already?
Frazier: They must be looking for something they haven't found, because over the years, man, I've done so many books and movies about the fights. [Laughs] I don't know what the hell they're looking for. I really don't know what they hell they're looking for. I think they've already found everything they're going to find. But I don't mind doing it and talking about it. I like getting together with Larry and talking about boxing. But I don't know what they're looking for.
Holmes: You know what it is; they're still trying to figure out who's the greatest and the best of all time. Ali always said he was the greatest of all time, Joe thinks he was, and I think I was. We all have our opinions, but they try to prove it out in books and movies and research, and it's hard to do because we're all so different. I think the one thing that's for sure is that you can't compare the guys who are fighting today to us. These guys are what I call "poop butts." They can't fight. These guys probably wouldn't make good sparring partners; we would have sent them home.
Markazi: Is it tough to see where boxing is and where the heavyweight division is now? Everyone always used to know who the heavyweight champion was; I would imagine less than 10 percent of the population knows who he is today.
Holmes: Ask me. I can't tell you. It's understandable because these guys aren't real boxers. One of the things that's really hurting boxing is they don't have national television anymore. It's all pay-per-view now. They might have an ESPN fight here or there, but that's it. When we were fighting we would have our fights on ABC, CBS and NBC. We had all the networks carrying and covering our fights.
Frazer: I don't understand it. We need guys like Larry, Muhammad and George Foreman in boxing again. All these guys now should be able to step up and carry what we created, but they can't. They don't understand.
Markazi: Do you even watch heavyweight fights anymore?
Holmes: No, I don't watch it. I can't.
Frazier: Me too. I don't know who these guys are. I really don't know who anyone is. I don't go to fights anymore. It's not exciting.
Holmes: I watch some of the little guys. If Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao is fighting, I'll watch them, but not the heavyweights. These Klitschko brothers and stuff I'll turn them on for a second, but I can't watch it. They weren't doing anything but dancing around and looking at each other. It wasn't interesting, so I didn't watch it. I wish I could see Mayweather and Pacquiao fight, but what they're doing right now is hurting boxing because people want to see the fight and there's a lot of money involved in the fight. They're trying to bring up stuff that is taking away from the fight with drug tests and accusations. When you get into personal insults like that, it puts a damper on the fight. I don't get it. They're both going to make at least $25 million. I would worry about it after the fight. If I'm making $25 million and he's taking dog food to make him stronger, so what? Let's go ahead and do it and talk about it later after we get our money. First, get the money. These guys don't get that.
Markazi: You both retired and came back, which seems to be the protocol of most boxers. What is it about boxing that makes fighters want to return and maybe fight past their prime?
Holmes: What drove me back was money. That was the only thing. I had to take care of my family and provide them an education. I didn't want to do a regular job; I went back to boxing because that what I knew how to do. Boxing helped me to get out places that I didn't want to be. That's what motivated me. It was about the money, about the benjamins.
Frazier: The main thing was the government was taking a lot of money out, and I had to fight. We had to fight to survive.
Markazi: Obviously that's hard to justify at times when you look at Ali now, who fought one fight too many, right?
Holmes: Ali was a great champion and a great man who did a lot for this game of boxing and if it wasn't for guys like Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, the game of boxing would not be as great as it was and come as far as it did. The boxing that Joe and Ali put on in Manila and the Garden gave boxing a hell of a shot in the arm, and what boxing needs today is the same thing. They need someone like Ali and Joe
Frazier: And someone like yourself.
Holmes: Well, you were the guys who brought it. You guys were the tree; I was just a twig on the tree. Boxing needs someone like you guys to get the sport back to where it was. I want to believe there's a next great generation of boxers that will do that, but we need one bad. I had hoped Mayweather was going to do it, but he can't because a lot of people are turned off by his attitude. We need a heavyweight, not a foreigner; we need a great American heavyweight fighter to bring boxing back. We don't have that now and don't know if we'll ever get it again.
Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com.