Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali’s conqueror in the Fight of the Century, died Monday night after a brief battle with liver cancer at the age of 67.
The once heavyweight champion battled Muhammad Ali nearly to the death in the Thriller in Manila. Then Joe Frazier spent the rest of his life trying to fight his way out of Ali’s shadow.
Ali would say as much after Frazier knocked him down in the 15th round en route to becoming the first man to beat Ali at Madison Square Garden, New York, in March 1971.
But he bore the burden of being Ali’s foil, and he paid the price. Bitter for years about the taunts his former nemesis once threw his way, Frazier only in recent times came to terms with what happened in the past and said he had forgiven Ali for everything he said.
Smokin’ Joe Frazier will forever be linked to Ali. But no one in boxing would ever dream of anointing Ali as “The Greatest” unless he, too, was linked to Smokin’ Joe.
“I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration,” Ali said in a statement. “My sympathy goes out to his family and loved ones.”
They fought three times, twice in the heart of New York City and once in the morning in a steamy arena in the Philippines. They went 41 rounds together, with neither giving an inch and both giving it their all.
In their last fight in Manila in 1975, they traded punches with a fervor that seemed unimaginable among heavyweights. Frazier gave almost as good as he got for 14 rounds, then had to be held back by trainer Eddie Futch as he tried to go out for the final round, unable to see.
“Closest thing to dying that I know of,” Ali said afterward.
Ali was as merciless with Frazier out of the ring as he was inside it. He called him a gorilla, and mocked him as an Uncle Tom. But he respected him as a fighter, especially after Frazier won a decision to defend his heavyweight title against the then-unbeaten Ali in a fight that was so big Frank Sinatra was shooting pictures at ringside and both fighters earned an astonishing $2.5 million.
Bob Arum, who once promoted Ali, said he was saddened by Frazier’s passing.
“He was such an inspirational guy. A decent guy. A man of his word,” Arum said. “I’m torn up by Joe dying at this relatively young age. I can’t say enough about Joe.”
Frazier’s death was announced in a statement by his family, who asked to be able to grieve privately and said they would announce “our father’s homecoming celebration” as soon as possible.
Don King, who promoted the Thrilla in Manila, was described by a spokesman as too upset to talk about Frazier’s death.
Though slowed in his later years and his speech slurred by the toll of punches taken in the ring, Frazier still was active on the autograph circuit in the months before he died. In September he went to Las Vegas, where he signed autographs in the lobby of the MGM Grand hotel-casino shortly before Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s fight against Victor Ortiz.
An old friend, Gene Kilroy, visited with him and watched Frazier work the crowd.
“He was so nice to everybody,” Kilroy said. “He would say to each of them, ‘Joe Frazier, sharp as a razor, what’s your name?’ “
Frazier was small for a heavyweight, weighing just 205 pounds when he won the title by stopping Jimmy Ellis in the fifth round of their 1970 fight at Madison Square Garden. But he fought every minute of every round going forward behind a vicious left hook, and there were few fighters who could withstand his constant pressure.
His reign as heavyweight champion lasted only four fights – including the win over Ali – before he ran into an even more fearsome slugger than himself. George Foreman responded to Frazier’s constant attack by dropping him three times in the first round and three more in the second before their 1973 fight in Jamaica was waved to a close and the world had a new heavyweight champion.
“Good night Joe Frazier. I love you dear friend. George Foreman” read Foreman’s Twitter page.
Born in Beaufort, S.C., on Jan. 12, 1944, Frazier took up boxing early after watching weekly fights on the black-and-white television on his family’s small farm. He was a top amateur for several years, and became the only American fighter to win a gold medal in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo despite fighting in the final bout with an injured left thumb.
“Joe Frazier should be remembered as one of the greatest fighters of all time and a real man,” Arum told the AP in a telephone interview Monday night. “He’s a guy that stood up for himself. He didn’t compromise and always gave 100 percent in the ring. There was never a fight in the ring where Joe didn’t give 100 percent.”
After turning pro in 1965, Frazier quickly became known for his punching power, stopping his first 11 opponents. Within three years he was fighting world-class opposition and, in 1970, beat Ellis to win the heavyweight title that he would hold for more than two years.
Frazier in his later years had financial trouble and ended up running a gym in Philadelphia.
He celebrated the 40th anniversary of his win over Ali earlier this year with parties in New York. He said he no longer felt any bitterness toward Ali, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease and is mostly mute.
“I forgive him,” Frazier said. “He’s in a bad way.”