Requiem for a Heavyweight: Smokin' Joe Frazier

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Remembering the great boxer, who died of cancer on Monday at age 67

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Even though my father was a huge fan of boxing, I was too young to remember or appreciate in real-time the first heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, the one that took place on March 8, 1971 at Madison Square Garden, the one that life-long boxing fans still describe as the greatest match of all time. By the time I was old enough to pay attention, the two boxers were sweating it out in the Phillippines in 1975, in the brutal final of their three bouts, pushing each other to what Ali would later call "the closest to death I ever came." 

Deprived of experiencing the "Fight of the Century" as it unfolded, either live via satellite or later on the Wide World of Sports, I've had to settle for watching the occasional grainy replay of the 1971 bout and to otherwise sniff around for impactful first-hand narratives of the fight. Those accounts, along with ESPN Classic and a handful of Ali movies and documentaries, have kept alive for two subsequent generations the spirit and the glory of first Ali-Frazier fight. And now, as a tribute to the fallen Frazier, I'll bet you Manny Pacquiao's next paycheck that we'll be seeing the replay again this week on television in the comfort of our own homes. 

Here are some of the highlights. Makes contemporary boxing seem like beanbag, doesn' it?

You never know where you are going to find Ali-Frazier. You never who has been bitten by the bug. For example, in the newsroom at CBS Radio News, in the studio where the World News Roundup is broadcast every morning and every evening (as it has been for three quarters of a century) there hangs on the wall, posted years ago, the text of of the famous account of the first Ali-Frazier fight. It is written by Larry Merchant, yes, the Larry Merchant of HBO Boxing fame, the timeless chronicler of the sport. For The New York Post, dateline March 9, 1971, Merchant wrote this unforgettable lede:

Muhammad Ali fought a truth machine last night, and the truth that emerged was painfully clear. The arrogance and hubris that made Ali a great champion made him a former champion.

You can't con Joe Frazier for 15 rounds. Joe Frazier comes at you too honestly, too openly. He lets you find out what you have inside you. It is going to take an honest man made of stern stuff to beat him. Ali was not honest enough last night.

Ali went to the Garden last night to paint a masterpiece, to put on a great show, and he put on a great show; a fight of primitive fury and insolence, punctuated by ghetto gamesmanship. But Joe Frazier was not in Ali's plans for the show. And, ultimately, that is where he went wrong.

As it is with many famous people who live a public life of triumph and tragedy, of such visible extremes between the high and the low, Joe Frazier's death Monday evening will mean many different things to many different people. We know what Ali himself will say about the passing of his most famous foe. When word spread over the weekend that Frazier was in hospice care, Ali put out a statement saying that he and his family were praying for Joe, whom Ali called his "friend," a "fighter and a champion." Frazier's death is another death of a sort to Ali as well; another part of him that is sadly gone from us, too.

What will George Foreman say? What about Merchant and Bert Sugar and Dave Anderson and Pete Hamill and the hundreds of other people who know what they are talking about when they talk about Joe Frazier? Does Frazier's (relatively sudden) death somehow change the trajectory of the story any more than the Ali-Fraizer "reconciliation" did a few years ago? I put "reconciliation" in quotes since it's difficult to tell whether and to what extent the two actually did reconcile, or at least stay reconciled for any length of time.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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