The two heavyweights had brutal fights in the ring, but it was Ali's verbal jabs that hurt Frazier most in the long run


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Joe Frazier, one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time, died last night.  He was 67.

Frazier was a bull-like fighter who stalked his opponents, often finishing them with his brutal left hook.  The man known as Smokin' Joe had 37 fights, winning 32 (27 by knockouts), losing four (twice to Muhammad Ali), and recording one draw.  But it wasn't his record, or even being named the eighth greatest heavyweight of all time, that defined his boxing career.  Frazier was always seen through the prism of his storied fights and rivalry with Muhammad Ali, who once described Frazier as "the greatest fighter of all time, next to me."

There was once a time when boxing mattered, and Ali's battles with Frazier captivated the interest of sports fans, and the general public, because the fights meant something more than just an athletic contest. Ali was brilliant at self-promotion and became a voice for African-Americans and as a strong objector to the Vietnam War. His opponents—chiefly Joe Frazier—paid the price for his quick-witted candor and his ability to vilify opponents. Ali played up the disparity between the two men. "I'm not just fightin' one man," Ali said before one of his contests with Frazier.  "My mission is to bring freedom to 30 million black people. Frazier has no cause. He's in it for the money alone." Frazier was always caught in Ali's cruel verbal tsunami. "I don't want to be no more than what I am," Frazier said. As a friend put it at the time, "Joe is just Joe."

Ali became a revered American icon, while Frazier was seen for years, unfairly, as an establishment lackey, which frustrated Frazier because his parents worked in the fields in South Carolina.  Born Joseph William Frazier, the future boxer dreamed of becoming a champion fighter as he punched a burlap sacks full of rags.  Through boxing, Frazier had escaped the Jim Crowe South, but Ali's fight promotion hyperbole had changed the way people perceived Frazier. The truth was much more complicated. 

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Frazier was a heavyweight gold medalist at 1964 Olympic Games held in Tokyo, but he returned to the United States and worked as a janitor.  He climbed his way up the pro boxing ranks and in March 1971 he won the undisputed heavyweight title with a 15-round decision over Ali at Madison Square Garden.   The dramatic bout was billed as the "Fight of the Century."  After refusing to serve in Vietnam, Ali had his belt taken away.  He was given a chance to reclaim it from Frazier.  It was an important fight in boxing lore:  Frank Sinatra was at ringside taking photos for Life magazine. Joe Louis, Hubert H. Humphrey, Bill Cosby, and other celebrities were in attendance.  And 300 million worldwide watched it on television. (Comparatively, 1 million pay-per-view "buys" is considered a success in boxing today.) 

Frazier won a unanimous decision.

He fought Ali again in a 1974 non-title fight (Ali won a unanimous decision), and then, after Ali fought George Foreman in the "Rumble in the Jungle," held in Zaire, Frazier and Ali would meet in 1975 for the epic "Thrilla in Manila," a fight they still talk about in the Philippines. 

It was a brutal, back-and-forth affair, and both men suffered.  Frazier, battered and unable to open his right eye, couldn't come out for the last round.  "It's the closest I've come to death," Ali said.  The fight was an extraordinary and damaging physical battle, but it was Ali's verbal assaults against Frazier that never seemed to heal through the years.  Their relationship remained strained.  Ali tried to reach out; Frazier seemed to forgive him for the slights, but the bitterness just wouldn't go away.

Perhaps, in the end, Frazier forgave Ali.  We will never know.  But two days ago, when the news of Frazier's worsening condition was announced, Ali quickly released a statement, "My family and I are keeping Joe and his family in our daily prayers. Joe has a lot of friends pulling for him, and I'm one of them."

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