Joe Frazier was the other half of the Muhammad Ali story.
He was the foil for Ali in every encounter with the man. Whenever there was the elegant, poetic Ali who would “Float Like a Butterfly, Sting like a Bee”, there was Smokin’ Joe, every bit as worthy of his name as a ring star in the 1960s and 70s.
“Ali always said I would be nothing without him,” Frazier said in a 2006 interview. “But who would he have been without me?”
Frazier was a hard hitter - in 1967 he fractured Canadian heavyweight George Chuvalo's orbital bone under his eye so badly that Chuvalo needed reconstructive surgery to correct the injury. Frazier was one of only two boxers to stop Chuvalo, with a fourth-round technical knockout. The other was George Foreman.
Chuvalo said in a YouTube interview that Frazier would chase current heavyweight contender Vladimir Klitchko “from the ring. He’s never met a relentless fighter like Joe.”
Frazier was big and brutish by comparison with Ali - yet a guitar-paying musician despite the broken bones and havoc the sport wrought in his fingers.
Frazier, who died of liver cancer Monday, was heavyweight champion of the world from 1970-73. Frazier, born in poverty in South Carolina, lived in Philadelphia. He had three legendary fights with Ali and was the first man to shut up the “Louisville Lip,” as the first man to defeat Ali. Frazier won the first fight, and Ali took the next two. The two will forever be thought of together for their battles.
“The world has lost a great champion,” Ali said in a statement Monday. “I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration.”
Ali was a charismatic self-promoter. Frazier, who won the Olympic heavyweight boxing gold medal for the United States in 1964 in Tokyo, was a proud, no-nonsense man who dropped out of school at age 13.
He won the world heavyweight title in 1970, knocking out champion Jimmy Ellis, after Ali had been stripped of the championship in 1967 as a Black Muslim and conscientious objector who refused to fight in the Vietnam War. Frazier lost the heavyweight crown in 1973 to Foreman.
Ali was reinstated in boxing and met Frazier on March 8, 1971 at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Frazier sent Ali to the canvas with a left hook in the 15th round. Ali got up but Frazier won by unanimous decision. The fight was so vicious that it sent both men to hospital.
“I must have thrown 90 shots at him,” Ali said, “and I asked him ‘Are you crazy?’ He just put his head down and came back in and said ‘Yes, I’m crazy,’” Ali recalled in an interview. He said Frazier was the only boxer who talked back to the loquacious Ali in the ring.
The two later embraced in a British version of This is Your Life that featured Ali, Frazier reminded Ali of his poem: “Joe came out smokin’; I came out pokin’, pouring water on his smokin’.”
The second Ali-Frazier fight was on Jan. 28, 1974 in New York. Although no title was on the line, huge interest followed the men for their respective styles, their dislike of each other, and for a TV studio confrontation in the build-up.
Ali won the bout with a 12-round decision and then went on to beat George Foreman to reclaim the heavyweight title.
Ali retained the title Oct. 1, 1975, in an encounter with Frazier in the Philippines, famous as the Thrilla in Manila, one of the biggest boxing events of the 20th century.
Frazier said Ali withstood punches that “would have knocked a building down”. Ali would later show his respect for Frazier calling him “the roughest and toughest” he had ever fought.
The two hammered at each other for 14 rounds before Frazier’s trainer and cornerman Eddie Futch stopped the fight because Frazier’s eye was swollen shut. Frazier never forgave Futch for that decision. He’d rather die in the ring, he said, than give Ali a win.
Their rivalry was waged not only in a boxing ring. Ali cruelly taunted Frazier as a “gorilla” and an “Uncle Tom.” For his part, Frazier insisted on calling his foe Cassius Clay, the birth name that Ali changed in 1964 for a Muslim name. Frazier’s bitterness toward Ali lasted for decades, yet a grudging respect existed between the adversaries.
“He was definitely one of boxing’s greats. He was legendary. He has made his mark in boxing, everyone knows his history,” former British world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis - who won an Olympic gold for Canada - said in a BBC interview.
“Without him, other boxing heroes wouldn’t be great either because they really tested his talent against him. In a room filled of great men, he is definitely one of them.”
Frazier was born in segregated South Carolina in 1944, the youngest of 12 children. He said his uncle told him when he was a boy he would become the next Joe Louis, the celebrated heavyweight champion of the 1930s and 1940s. Frazier amassed a career record of 32 wins, four defeats and one draw. He retired after a second loss to Foreman in 1976, then came out of retirement for a fight in 1981 before ending his career for good. His only losses were to Ali and Foreman.
Ali became a beloved sports legend but Frazier was never embraced in the same way. He also lost almost all of his money. He lived alone in an apartment above the gym where he trained young fighters in a run-down section of Philadelphia.
Frazier in the 1980s managed the boxing career of his eldest son, Marvis, who was best known for devastating knockout losses to champions Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson. Frazier’s daughter Jacquelyn Frazier-Lyde entered women’s boxing and fought Ali’s daughter Laila, losing on a decision in 2001.
With files from Reuters