Joe Frazier beats Muhammad Ali at Madison Square Garden in 1971. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis
Worried eyes turned towards Philadelphia these past few days, knowing the news was bad, hoping without logic that Joe Frazier could beat the odds one more time. Outside the boxing community, however, concern was muted.
Frazier’s liver cancer, diagnosed only a few weeks ago, was so advanced that, once initial rumours were confirmed, the news arrived more regularly, consumed with varying degrees of surprise or disinterest, so disconnected from the wider public imagination had Joe become. Smokin’ Joe was very much a fighter out of his time. It was as if the respect he engendered in the 70s had not altogether survived the journey into an era of disillusion with the boxing industry, a sport seen as in decline through serial neglect.
If the medical bulletins had brought news of a more celebrated contemporary, however, mild hysteria would have infected the response.
Muhammad Ali rose above the ring, rose above almost everyone on the planet for a while, and, inevitably, every update on Frazier’s condition dwelt on their trilogy. There was no insult intended, because the first and the last of those collisions deserve places in the top 10 heavyweight fights of all time, yet theirs was never an equal partnership.
It was Ali who had the charisma. He shouted loudest. Louder than the planet. He made Joe a rich man and, for a while, they combined to return boxing to the pinnacle of public imagination once inhabited by the likes of Dempsey, Louis and Marciano. Without Frazier, Ali would have found other challenges. Without Ali, Frazier would have reigned longer, but surely not as lucratively.
There was, inevitably, a price to pay – for both of them – and the Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City, Manila, on Wednesday morning, 1 October, 1975, was the settling place.
The Thrilla in Manila – conceived by Don King, embraced by the dubious regime of President Marcos – reached and maintained such a level of raw intensity that it is regarded by an overwhelming majority of respected observers as the most brutal of all heavyweight title fights. It is no exaggeration to say that either or both combatants could have died. Those who witnessed the 14 rounds it lasted first-hand talk of it still only in terms of guilt and reverence.
It was, said the fine American boxing writer Jerry Izenberg “the championship of each other”. Neither lost, was the opinion at ringside; it was a fight between two courageous athletes, a fight that transcended titles and cash, temporarily seducing onlookers into suspending all considerations of mortality and good taste.
Retrospective praise did not impress Joe. He boxed for glory, sure enough, but for recognition too, and the belts which confirmed that. Hailed for losing did not heal many bruises. It was Ali that Imelda Marcos wanted to dance with afterwards. Except he couldn’t, so battered was he. Frazier always reckoned he beat Ali two fights to one, that only the compassion of his trainer, Eddie Futch, prevented him going one more winning round in Manila as, unknown to everyone in the stadium at the time, Ali was ready to quit too.
Joe said later he was prepared to risk death that weird Filipino morning, scheduled to suit American television; I doubt it is a judgment he would have held with conviction as his health failed on him down the years; Ali had no such attachment to the battle – but, then again, he won.
Last summer, they shuffled into Madison Square Garden together, shells of legends, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of their first encounter, the Fight Of The Century. That contest, during a New York newspaper strike, was a celebrity-fest that had Burt Lancaster on the mike for his one and only colour commentary and Frank Sinatra taking the photos. It was Ali’s first defeat, and the man with an ego the size of the not-long conquered moon took it well enough. His behaviour in subsequent years was not so noble, whatever his protestations that he was merely selling tickets with insults.
The animosity between Ali and Frazier was long, genuine and unseemly; much of it came from Joe and the feud and was only put to bed in recent times, partly for the benefit of the media that helped make them. They went through the motions of reconciliation, like two old boys on a quiet verandah somewhere; all that was missing were a couple of rocking chairs, some sweet violin and a setting sun. Reunited for their 2011 Garden schmooze, Frazier said of the mute Ali, palsied by Parkinson’s syndrome but still capable of a mischievous half-smile: “If I had a loaf of bread, I’d give it to him.”
But once it was ugly. Frazier fought hard for Ali over his refusal to be drafted, and Ali repaid him with cheap shots he was ill-equipped or ill-disposed to answer in kind. So he took it out on him with his most eloquent weapons, his fists.
We should think of Frazier in his own right, too. He was a great champion, a feared adversary for every heavyweight of his era and worthy of consideration alongside all the hailed kings of his division. The memory is of a schunky ball of energy, not so balletic as Ali, nor so monstrous as George Foreman, but a force that burned with frightening intensity. There weren’t many soft assignments after his first fight with Oscar Bonavena in 1966 (when he got up from two knockdowns to win on points) until the finish. He lost four times, but only to the best and only in world title fights, in 37 contests.
The fire, inevitably, went out. In 1981 Frazier and Ali fought again – but not each other. Their opponents were time and a pair of fighters barely fit to share ring space with them in their prime. Trevor Berbick embarrassed Ali in the Bahamas on 11 December; eight days earlier in Chicago, Frazier, returning after five years in retirement, drew with Floyd “Jumbo” Cummings.
Both were subsequently reduced to peddling their past, with contrasting success. A preserved cigarette the then Cassius Clay signed for boxing historian Hank Kaplan in the Fifth Street gym in Miami in 1961, went for $1,900 at auction many years later; some of his shorts and robes have brought bids of $40,000. At the International Boxing Hall of Fame convention in upstate New York in 2000, Frazier was charging schoolboys $50 for his autograph on a glove.
Joe says he lost many millions on land deals, fooled, apparently, by business partners. He walked with a cane, fighting diabetes, and toured intermittently with his band, The Knockouts. As recently as September, he was drawn to Las Vegas to watch Floyd Mayweather Jr and Victor Ortiz. He went for dinner with Gene Kilroy, Ali’s old fixer and friend, a gambler and raconteur who knew everyone from Sonny Liston to Mike Tyson. Kilroy told friends Joe wanted to move to Vegas to cash in on the memorabilia market.
In the hotel lobby of the fight venue, Joe signed his name, alongside Ken Norton, Leon Spinks and Earnie Shavers. All of them had inconvenienced Ali.
Then Joe went home to Philadelphia, his plans unfulfilled, and was given terrible news.
Doctors told him cancer was eating away at his liver so viciously that he could not expect to live much longer. He went into a hospice and his family gathered around him. When the news leaked out over the weekend, in New York then across the globe, it was met with ritual sorrow.
Frazier is leaving us in reduced circumstances, a tale as familiar as it is sad and, surely, avoidable. He is embraced for the heroics that made him Smokin’ Joe, an uncomplicated fighting man, naive perhaps, but dignified and honest. He never aped Ali and, in the end, he forgave him. There was much to forgive.
In his autobiography, Frazier lists his adversary thus: “Ali, Muhammad, see Clay, Cassius.”
That was Frazier’s time: when he was Joe and the other guy was Cassius.