A Little More Frazier And Ali

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I'd forgotten about this piece in SI, but I remembered it when a commenter referred me over that way. This piece came out in 96, and is one the big reasons I that Thrilla In Manila felt a little stale to me. It's really well reported. Here's an interesting post-Manila nugget. Lewis, is Butch Lewis, one of Frazier's old friends:

Back in the States, Ali called Lewis and asked him for Frazier's private number. Ali told Lewis that he wanted to apologize to Frazier for some of the things he had said. Lewis called Frazier, but, he says, Frazier told him. "Don't give it to him."

In the 21 years since then, Ali and Frazier have seen each other at numerous affairs, and Frazier has barely disguised the loathing he feels toward his old antagonist. In 1988, for the taping of a film called Champions Forever, five former heavyweight title holders--Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Larry Holmes and Ken Norton--gathered in Las Vegas. A crowd of people were at Johnny Tocco's Gym for a morning shoot when Frazier started in on Ali, who was already debilitated by Parkinson's. "Look at Ali," Frazier said. "Look what's happened to him. All your talkin', man. I'm faster than you are now. You're damaged goods."

"I'm faster than you are, Joe," Ali slurred. Pointing to a heavy bag, Ali suggested a contest: "Let's see who hits the bag the fastest."

Frazier grinned, not knowing he was back in the slaughterhouse. He stripped off his coat, strode to the bag and buried a dozen rapid-fire hooks in it, punctuating each rip with a loud grunt: "Huh! Huh! Huh!" Without removing his coat, Ali went to the bag, assumed the ready stance and mimicked one Frazier grunt: "Huh!" He had not thrown a punch. He turned slowly to Frazier and said, "Wanna see it again, Joe?" In the uproar of hilarity that ensued, only Frazier did not laugh. Ali had humiliated him again.

After the shoot, at a luncheon for the fighters, Frazier had too much to drink, and afterward, as people milled around the room and talked, he started walking toward Ali. Thomas Hauser, Ali's chronicler, watched the scene that unfolded over the next 20 minutes. Holmes quietly positioned himself between Ali and Frazier. "Joe was trying to get to Ali," Hauser says, "but wherever Joe went, left or right, Holmes would step between him and Ali. Physically shielding him. Joe was frustrated. After about 10 minutes of this, Foreman walked up to Larry and said, 'I'll take over.' " So for the next 10 minutes Frazier quietly tried to get around 290 pounds of assimilated Big Macs. At one point Frazier leaned into Foreman, but Foreman only leaned back. "Keep it cool, Joe," Foreman whispered. "Be calm."

Ali had no idea this was going on. "He was walking around like Mr. Magoo," says Hauser. "He was oblivious."


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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