Requiem for a Heavyweight: Smokin' Joe Frazier

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


AP Images

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. 

Recommended Reading

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.

Whatever the consensus, I hope Frazier's tribunes buttress his legacy in the coming days and weeks. He deserves in death the stability of reputation he so often was deprived of in life. Poor Frazier might have been a round or two shy of outboxing Ali in the ring but Smokin' Joe never stood a chance against Ali's wit outside of it. "One moved forward, the other back," the writer Charles Leerhsen wrote on Facebook Monday night after Frazier's death was confirmed. "What they had in common was the willingness and the ability to take a punch, and we all saw the result."

More than one person had suggested to me over the past few days that Frazier desperately wanted to outlive Ali, to best him in the simple act of living. But in death Frazier again beat Ali to the punch. It is the latter who has to hear the accolades and the posthumous praise for Frazier from smart men like Max Kellerman and Jeremy Schaap and David Remnick. It is Ali who is left alone in the ring. And today at least the spotlight shines on his fallen rival.

Merchant inadvertently may have written Frazier's obituary 40 years before the fighter succumbed to liver cancer--"Joe Frazier comes at you too honestly, too openly"--but the boxer's life was truly an astonishing one, full of parallels and contrasts, of glorious opportunities and numbing disappointments. I've always been struck by this one: Ali openly mocked Frazier as a "gorilla" and an "Uncle Tom" before their fight. He derided him mercilessly--after Frazier had loaned Ali money when the latter couldn't box because of his well-documented legal troubles. No wonder Frazier was so angry at the Garden that night.

Some of it we now know was for show. But some of it was deadly serious. That fight at the Garden in 1971 was the "Fight of the Century" not just because the two men were such great fighters. They were symbols, too, between black and white America, and between the Establishment and the Uprising, elements in our society which are still battling each other, out in the streets of America. Frazier is gone, now. Ali will follow him soon enough. But Ali-Frazier is timeless. And so are the undercurrents of the first Ali-Frazier fight. As a nation, we are still bloodied, and bloodying, and we are still unbowed.  

In the Garden, in 1971, it was Frazier, the Establishment guy, who beat the living crap out of Ali, the people's poet. Who could have imagined that it would be mostly downhill from there for Joe Frazier and that, 40 years later, Muhammad Ali would be one of the most beloved sports figures in world history? Certainly not Larry Merchant; the Ali of March 1971 is very different indeed from the Muhammad Ali of today. And you could have said the same thing about Joe Frazier.

Like every other heavyweight boxer of that era, Frazier needed Ali. He was the hub of the wheel. But unlike every other fighter, Ali needed Frazier, too, for Ali's greatness in many ways is measured by his three fights with Frazier. They made each other, or at least they made each other more than any of the rest of their contemporaries did. And now one is gone and the other is terribly sick. The sport may be a sweet science. But as always it takes a terrible toll.