Frazier - the legend defined by his bouts with Ali

'Thrilla in Manila' cemented his place as one of boxing's greats

Joe Frazier’s life, in and out of the ring, was indelibly tied to the man with whom he had an often poisoned relationship - Muhammad Ali.

Ali and Frazier, who on Monday lost his toughest fight of all to liver cancer aged 67, were at the vanguard of the heavyweight division’s heyday throughout the 1970s.

Their trilogy of fights had the world transfixed in a way that is almost impossible to imagine today.

Frazier, the quiet former farmhand from South Carolina, was the first man to silence the loquacious Ali in the 'Fight of the Century' at Madison Square Garden in 1971.

Rarely can a hyped sporting event have lived up to its billing with interest.

‘Smokin Joe’s unanimous 15-round defeat of Ali was watched by an estimated global television audience of 300 million, with Frazier’s classic left hook to floor Ali in the 15th round felt in living rooms and bars around the world.

Ali took his revenge in the rematch back at the Garden in 1974, with their third meeting coming the following year in the ‘Thrilla in Manila’.

It was in this epic, brutal slugfest in crippling conditions that Frazier cemented his place as one of the greatest heavyweight champions the ring has ever known, his trainer Eddie Futch having to step in to halt the show after the 14th round.

Despite being barely able to stand on his own two feet, Frazier begged to come out for the 15th round.

Ali, in his inimitable way, described the experience as “the closest thing to dying that I know of”.

This may have been the last time they raised their gloves in anger at each other but their sparring continued out of the ring for years after.

Frazier, bitter at articulate Ali’s personal taunts and jibes and mind games - was unable to shed the scars of being called names like ‘Uncle Tom and gorilla’, once suggesting that his old nemesis’s struggles with Parkinson’s were God’s way of punishing him for his behaviour out of the ring.

But in 2009 Frazier told Sports Illustrated that he had forgiven Ali, who was one of the first to pay tribute to his legendary old rival.

“The world has lost a great champion. I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration,” Ali said in a statement. “My sympathy goes out to his family and loved ones.”

Frazier was seduced by boxing from the moment he watched his first fight as a youngster on the black and white television his parents Rubin and Dolly had bought at their home in Beaufort, South Carolina.

He turned pro in 1965 after a successful amateur career climaxed by gold at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 where he clinched the title despite nursing an injured thumb in the final bout.

The bell was to sound on his fabled career with 32 wins (27 knockouts), four losses and one draw.

Aside from Ali, Frazier’s other two reverses came against George Foreman who bid farewell in a poignant Twitter message: “Good night Joe Frazier. I love you dear friend.”

A giant in the ring, Frazier enjoyed less success away from it, suffering financial hardship after losing many millions he made in the 1970s through poor handling of his investments.

He owned and ran a gym in his native Philadelphia until 2009, and found solace in music, releasing several soul-funk records under the Joe Frazier and the Knockouts banner.

As to the sport he towered over Frazier himself was disullisoned with the state of modern day boxing, telling the BBC in 2006: “I don’t see anyone who’se going to bring back the glory days.

“All these crazy sanctioning belts they’ve got - do you know who the world champion is?”

The youngest of seven sons he leaves nine children - two from a former girlfriend and seven with his divorced wife Florence.

Reaction to the death of Joe Frazier


Muhammad Ali, whose first defeat came against Frazier: “The world has lost a great champion. I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration. My sympathy goes out to his family and loved ones.”

George Foreman, who twice beat Frazier told the BBC: “He was a wonderful man and a wonderful friend and the world won’t be the same without him.

“He was such a terror. Muhammad Ali and George Foreman were big guys but when we went in the ring with Joe Frazier, we had to have respect.

“I hoped I never had to fight him. He wouldn’t back down. If you hit him, he liked it.

“Even when they stopped the boxing match to award me the championship of the world he was still on his feet.

“When Ali and Frazier fought, there will never be a spectacular moment in sport like that again. It was big.”

Promoter Don King who put on the famous ‘Thrilla in Manila’ fight between Frazier and Ali: “Smokin’ Joe Frazier was the embodiment of what a great heavyweight champion and person should be. He was a great gladiator.

“The courage Smokin’ Joe showed in The Thrilla in Manila -answering every Ali onslaught with an equally withering response - will remain in the hearts and minds of boxing fans around the globe forever. It was one of the most dramatic fights in history.

“One cannot underestimate the contribution Smokin’ Joe and Ali made to progress and change by creating the space, through their talent, for black men to be seen, visible and relevant. The Thrilla in Manila helped make America better.

“Not only was he a great fighter but also a great man. He lived as he fought with courage and commitment at a time when African Americans in all spheres of life were engaged in a struggle for emancipation and respect.

“Smokin’ Joe brought honour, dignity and pride for his people, the American people, and brought the nation together as only sports can do.”

Former heavyweight world champion Mike Tyson: “Frazier and Ali were quintessential the apex of pedigree fighting in which each man would not give an inch until they were dead. Their era was competitive fighting at the highest level. As a young fighter it has always been an honour to be compared to Frazier.”

Manny Pacquiao, who has won world titles in an unprecedented eight weight divisions: “Joe Frazier was a great champion in boxing and a great ambassador of the sport. My prayers go out to his family.”

British fighter Joe Bugner, who lost to Frazier five months after being beaten by Ali in 1973, told BBC Radio 5: “You literally had to hit him with a sledgehammer to put him away.

“Joe took everything away I thought I had and made me realise I needed more. If I was going to succeed I needed a lot more. It hit me like a lightning bolt when I heard he died.”

Former heavyweight world champion Lennox Lewis: “I am extremely saddened at the news of the passing of former World Heavyweight champion Smokin’ Joe Frazier. He made history in the greatest era ever of heavyweight boxing and his contributions to the sport are profound and immeasurable.

 

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