“Ali always said I’d be nothing without him but who would he have been without me?”
I am a huge Muhammad Ali fan. There are two reasons why. Firstly in the UK we were fed this great man as if he was to be supped at his feet and adored before each supper. It was, at times, relentless. Ali was a fantastic athlete. In more naive times, well before the age of the internet, what we were fed about Ali was something that would never have withstood the scrutiny of today. He was untouchable.
His shadow was something that was cast across every boxing ring where there was a heavyweight battle. Radios were tuned, black and white sets set up and color pictures poured over as we saw the Louisville Lip become quite simply, the Greatest. Even now, as I sit to write an appreciation of him as an athlete and boxer, Joe Frazier’s legacy is tinted by the shadow of his nemesis.
The thing is that Ali was the Greatest but to be something he needed to be compared with others. The greater the comparison, the greater your own legacy. With Joe Frazier that meant that Ali had someone who was his equal in the ring and his better out of it. Whilst Ali made headlines, Frazier made his name through humility and the power of his personality.
Smokin Joe Frazier was never painted as an evil man but just the one who would stand in the way of our hero. He was to be stopped from stopping our colossus from being the ultimate. Even now, in the days of huge hype and nastiness between fighters before fights the jibes that Ali threw at Frazier were close to unforgivable.
We believe that we live in a more liberal and forgiving age but the racial slurs that Ali threw were disgusting. Would any commentator or athlete now get away with calling another a Gorilla? No one. But icons are special and we forgave him as he gave us Manila and the Jungle.
But what of Joe Frazier? What did he contribute to the golden age of boxing? Frazier would provide us with Ali’s homecoming from his exile as he returned to fight after his ban. Frazier beat him. The only time he did. Yet another giant of the boxing ring in the 1970’s George Foreman was the one who took away Smokin Joe’s unbeaten record so whilst our eyes were diverted to the beauty of an Ali comeback the legacy of Frazier was being cemented for boxing aficionados elsewhere.
Frazier was an ungainly fighter, a heavy hitter but a tremendously able boxer. In latter years he could boast that Ali was the one who looked slow and now, in the age of the internet we heard some of the most awful things said about the icon we built. Some judged Frazier harshly and unfairly. The poverty to which he returned was harsh and the judgment some bestowed upon him even harsher but his death has brought us all to the table to marvel at a man whose legacy was 37 fights with only 4 losses.
He was the only US Boxer to win a Gold in the 1964 Olympics, and he did it with a broken thumb. He put aside his ambition in 1970 to refuse to box for a WBA contest in protest at Ali being stripped of his title. He won his world title by knocking Jimmy Ellis to the floor – something nobody else had ever done. Frazier then did something else nobody had ever done – Beat Ali. In the Fight of the Century – can we guess who thought up that title – he won by unanimous decision after 15 rounds.
He was suffering from hyper tension and a kidney infection and both fighters ended up in hospital.
Frazier lost his title to Foreman then came across the Atlantic to beat Joe Bugner. He then went back across to fight Ali again, this time losing in a terrible second fight. The third contest – the Thriller in Manila – saw Frazier’s corner pull him out exhausted and the words his trainer said to him were that he would never be forgotten though he had lost were prophetic. This was one of the most brutal and terrifying of contests. It was fought in searing heat that others could never have withstood. Ali was forced or was gracious enough to say then that Frazier was a fantastic boxer – second only to himself.
It may be odd that this man lost 4 times to only 2 men. When you consider those losses were to Foreman and Ali you begin to understand just how poor the current heavyweight scene actually is. To be truly great you must rise above other great people. Otherwise your legacy is lost amongst mediocrity. The other greats though can become forgotten as the icons shine.
This is one boxer who deserves better and that his legacy is now without shadows is fantastic testimony to a man who fought, lost and fought again against the bitter arrows that outrageous fortune flung at him. That he rests in peace should be with the gratitude that he deserves. Not that he allowed me to idolize another but that he gave me and many others reasons to believe that this noble art was amongst the greatest ever seen; greatest ever followed; and greatest ever argued over. Joe Frazier RIP seems so trite for a colossus of a man but its simplicity demonstrates a man with no angles, no spin and nothing left to prove. Smokin Joe Frazier.