But if I thought of Frazier at all it was only in his role of authenticating Ali’s return through this trial by terrible combat. Ali had lost his title by fiat not fight, and taking punishment from Frazier seemed to be the final payment to America for his refusal to serve in the Army.
Frazier would lose his title to George Foreman two years later, becoming second banana that night not only to the new champ but to Howard Cosell, whose cry of “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” became one of his signatures.
Then, in 1974, Ali would improbably beat Foreman in Zaire to become champion again. A year after that, Ali would beat Frazier in their third fight, the Thrilla in Manilla, considered by many the classic heavyweight match. Both men were damaged by that fight and Joe was, as Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer, delicately informed me, “shot city.”
But he hung on. He had a loud band, Smokin’ Joe Frazier and the Knockouts, and he unwisely promoted his son, Marvis, in increasingly embarrassing fights. (More recently, one of his daughters lost a prize fight to one of Ali’s daughters, and then became a lawyer. This is beyond comment.)
I always found Joe direct and friendly, if a little boring, unless he was talking about Ali and became testy. He had stood up for Ali when his title was stripped, he had lent him money. He could never understand the slurs. Neither could I. But Joe should have gotten over it, for his own sake.
So let’s give Frazier his due but not over-sentimentalize him. He was a decent man, if unforgiving. He was a true gladiator, and thus also a showman in his way. Calling him one of the greatest heavyweight champions in history is OK by me—but one of how many greatest?
Ultimately, there’s not enough shelf space for fighters these days beyond the legends of Joe Louis and Ali, both neutered by sanctification. While we can, remember Frazier as a working man willing to take his lumps.
Click here to see a slide show on Frazier and Ali.