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Boxers Joe Frazier (L) and Muhammad Ali pose together as they arrive at the 10th annual ESPY Awards which honor excellence in all sports in Hollywood in this July 10, 2002 file photo. Former heavyweight champion Frazier, who earned boxing immortality after his three epic fights with Ali, died on November 7, 2011 at age 67, U.S. media reported. (FRED PROUSER/REUTERS)
Boxers Joe Frazier (L) and Muhammad Ali pose together as they arrive at the 10th annual ESPY Awards which honor excellence in all sports in Hollywood in this July 10, 2002 file photo. Former heavyweight champion Frazier, who earned boxing immortality after his three epic fights with Ali, died on November 7, 2011 at age 67, U.S. media reported. (FRED PROUSER/REUTERS)

Jeff Blair

Frazier, Ali linked to the end Add to ...

And now we wait, not with a sense of anticipation or trepidation but with some wistfulness. We wait, and wonder quietly how much longer we will have Muhammad Ali among us.

Ali’s response to the news that former foe Joe Frazier had died at 67 from liver cancer on Monday night was a brief prepared statement: “I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration. My sympathy goes out to his family and loved ones.”

Ours was in part a sigh of relief, a sense of comfort in the knowledge that the great man is still here despite the cruel ravages of Parkinson’s disease. It does no disservice to Frazier’s life or his boxing career to see Ali as a means of adding context to the news; rather it seems all together fitting. Ali was – is? – The Greatest. And Frazier was the guy who beat The Greatest – the first to do so.

Are there any other athletes who can say that?

Frazier is why Tiger Woods was always at best a lame pretender to Ali’s throne as the world’s most significant athlete, even before Woods started ordering off menu at some of central Florida’s finer fast-food establishments. Woods had no Frazier; nobody for the anti-Tiger forces to rally around. And so unless you were an avid golfer, he became boring. Repetitive, lacking the texture offered by a Significant Other.

Truthfully, the closest we’ve had to Ali vs. Frazier was probably Earvin (Magic) Johnson vs. Larry Bird, bolstered by a supporting cast of Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics. It was maybe the most comfortable racial debate of all time, easy on the eyes and the soul because Johnson moved so well between races and cultures and because Bird was properly respectful of African-American athletes and, at the end of the day, they’d both do anything to win.

But that’s not two men with rage in their eyes circling each other in a ring in a violent sport.

Ali had other foes, of course – George Foreman and, before the U.S. government threw him in prison, the likes of Sonny Liston – but after tune-ups against Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena, it was the Fight of the Century against Frazier that marked Ali’s real return to heavyweight boxing. Frazier put him down in the 15th round, en route to a clear unanimous decision.

And what are we left with now? Absent the sectarian blood lust of, say, soccer’s Celtic vs. Rangers, sports is now mostly about point spreads and fantasy teams. Very little else is capable of galvanizing or resonating because we do not consume sports as we used to and because TV and the Internet has taken the labour out of it all.

The 2012 London Summer Olympics offers a glimmer of hope if a challenger emerges to sprint star Usain Bolt, but mostly it’s stuff like Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in men’s tennis, with Roger Federer stumbling to keep up.

The NHL has Sidney Crosby vs. Alexander Ovechkin, but one guy hasn’t played for a year, the other guy hasn’t been the same since spitting out the bit at the 2010 Vancouver Games.

Major League Baseball has the New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox, but what’s that, really? The Red Sox likability factor took a tumble in 2004, when they ended the Curse of the Bambino. Now, it’s like watching two rich kids street-racing: who really cares what happens to either of them?

Mixed martial arts is all the rage, but it seems predicated on names pulled out of a hat by UFC boss Dana White – or who has or hasn’t annoyed him off in any particular month – and its feuds seem wholly contrived.

There are those who will tell you Frazier lived and fought and ultimately died in Ali’s shadow, and on a base level that is undoubtedly true, especially for true aficionados of boxing.

But I have always preferred to think of Smokin’ Joe as the flip-side of Ali.

I can’t think one of one without the other, and wonder how many people like myself found comfort Tuesday in a few words from Ali.

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