Joe Frazier was the wrong man at the wrong time. He was a great fighter eclipsed by The Greatest. He ascended to the heavyweight time at a time when Muhammad Ali was in exile, and even after Frazier beat Ali in the Fight of the Century in March 1971 he came away somehow lessened.
Through force of personality, Ali became the People’s Champ. (And after he beat George Foreman, who’d beaten Frazier the year before, Ali was again the real champ.) But Ali was singularly unkind to the man who would be his greatest rival, calling him names that hurt Frazier almost until the day he died.
Smokin’ Joe wasn’t an intergalactic presence. He was simply a tough heavyweight from Philly who’d take five punches to swing the big left hook. His nemesis would, on a whim, uncork the Ali Shuffle or the Rope-a-Dope; Smokin’ Joe would duck his head and throw leather. He tried to be a singer, but the experiment didn’t take. In the public’s view, the pure fighter was never going to be more than a pure fighter.
And there was a time when that would’ve been just fine. But Ali was the most famous person in the world — bigger than his sport, bigger than any sport. He changed his name and converted to Islam. He took a stand and defied the draft. He spent 3 1/2 years not fighting in the prime of his career. And yes, he was pretty, and yes, he could talk. (Long before he became Muhammad Ali, Cassius Clay was known as the Louisville Lip.)
Joe Frazier should have been seen as Ali’s peer; instead he became his foil. Ali won their second match in 1974, and he won again in the Thrilla in Manila in 1975, though “winning” might not be the proper word. After the punishment each man absorbed that frightful night, neither was ever the same. Ali famously told Mark Kram of Sports Illustrated that that experience was “the closest thing to dying that I know.”
If anything, the loss in Manila ennobled Frazier in a way that all his victories — even the one in Madison Square Garden over Ali — could not. We began to see him not just as the guy who wasn’t The Greatest but as maybe the most gallant fighter who ever lived. Alas, the gallantry was all he had left as a professional. He would fight only twice more.
Over the weekend came the stunning news that the toughest of the tough had liver cancer and was in a hospice. It was stunning because we thought only Ali could stop Smokin’ Joe. Frazier died last night, and his passing brought more than the usual sorrow that accompanies the loss of a great athlete. It wasn’t so much that we didn’t take note of him while he was alive — we noticed him, all right — but that we never quite afforded him his full due.
By Mark Bradley