The Ali-Frazier Rivalry
I wrote this blog three years ago, after the death of former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier. In reflection on the sport of boxing in general and on two of the greatest fighters ever to step into the ring I’ve updated the post and added images.
I used to be a huge boxing fan, so the death yesterday of former heavyweight champion Smokin’ Joe Frazier saddened me. Back in the day I was a huge Muhammad Ali fan, but I know that Ali’s greatness will be forever linked to the fighter who was his greatest rival in the ring: Joe Frazier. This short piece is about that three-fight rivalry.
For the first of their three fights, even people who didn’t care about boxing knew about Muhammad Ali fighting Joe Frazier. It was more than just a heavyweight championship bout between two undefeated heavyweight champions. It was a social rivalry as much as a sports rivalry:
- Boxer against slugger.
- People’s champion against white man’s champion (an irony that Ali made Frazier the “white man’s champion” in the public eye when Ali was from a middle-class upbringing while Frazier grew up poor and could probably better relate to the black experience in America).
- Revolution against the establishment.
- Arrogant flamboyance against modest respectability.
That March 8, 1971 fight was the biggest sports event most people had ever lived through. For right and wrong reasons, we all took sides.
That first fight – billed The Fight of the Century – lived up to the hype and then some. After being banned from boxing for three years and having missed the prime of his career Ali was still great at age 29, but he wasn’t ready for the non-stop aggression and will of Frazier, at age 27. Frazier capped off his 15-round decision win by knocking Ali down with a murderous left hook in the final round.
People who don’t know and have only seen images like this one think Joe knocked Muhammad out. He didn’t. Ali got up and finished the fight on his feet, fighting. Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee said that that punch knocked Ali out, that Ali was unconscious on his way down to the canvas, but that he got up at the count of four on instinct to finish the fight.
For me, their second fight was more about Ali showing that he could outsmart and win against Frazier if he fought the right way. That way was to keep his distance and grab Frazier when he got too close. Ali won a 12-round decision.
Their third fight, The Thrilla in Manila, was two men trying to kill each other. They almost did. Perhaps in retrospect they did, because neither man was the same after that brutal war. That fight was a play in three acts:
- Act One; Rounds 1 thru 5: Ali throwing bombs, trying to take Frazier’s head off. Frazier taking the blows as he always did, trying to bull his way through the onslaught.
- Act Two; Rounds 6 thru 11: As Frazier always did, there came the time when he made Ali pay the price for stepping into the ring with him. Frazier brutalized Ali’s body. He hammered Ali to the head with his legendary left hook, the weapon that put Ali on his back in their first fight.
- Act Three; Rounds 12 thru 14: As a young man of 22 Muhammad Ali–then known as Cassius Clay–proclaimed himself The Greatest. On that sweltering night in Manila, Philippines over a decade later he showed that he wasn’t just talk. Somehow he found the strength and courage to come back, to beat Frazier back and off him, and then, to take control of the fight again. In the 14th round Joe Frazier–the gallant warrior–was fighting blind. Both his eyes were swollen shut. He couldn’t see punches coming and and his head had become target practice for Ali.
Frazier’s corner had seen enough. Though Joe Frazier the warrior wanted to keep fighting, to keep trying against the man he had come to hate, his corner knew that to send Frazier out for the 15th and final round might be sending him to his death.
Ali won their third and final war by a technical knockout in the 14th round.
The war between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier ended after three fights and 41 brutal and thrilling rounds. It would be many more years before the men declared peace between each other.
About their third and final fight Ali said it was the closest thing he’d ever felt to dying.
Frazier said, “I hit him with shots that would bring down trees. Lawdy, Lawdy, he’s great.”
Smokin’ Joe Frazier was great, too.
Rest in Peace, Joe.