With Joe Frazier’s vicious left hook landing at will during the “Fight of the Century” at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1971, Muhammad Ali reached for one last intimidation tactic, telling Frazier he was God.
Frazier’s response: “Sorry Lord, you ended up in the wrong place tonight.”
Indeed Ali had. Frazier, the unbeaten and undisputed heavyweight champion, pummeled Ali on the way to a unanimous 15-round decision to retain his title and set the stage for the greatest rivalry of all-time in any sport.
Ali is consider the greatest ever and that has everything to do with Frazier and their three epic battles in which Ali won two. Frazier arguably won the most significant of the bouts. These two icons are forever linked, not just because of their battles inside the ring but due to the social and political significance their rivalry held outside of it.
Ali needed Frazier to be great. In an odd way, Frazier needed Ali, too.
Ali will forever be remembered as the brash, loud-mouthed champion who stood toe-to-toe with the establishment. Frazier, meanwhile, was taunted as the gorilla, ugly, stupid and an Uncle Tom, by Ali.
It was those jabs that hit Frazier hardest and still stung the most right up until death. Frazier, 67, passed away late Monday night following a brief bout with liver cancer. He died in Philadelphia among family and friends.
His passing caught the boxing world by surprise though it had become known Smokin’ Joe didn’t have long to live after the public became aware over the weekend of his month-long battle with liver cancer that had landed him in hospice.
"He was such an inspirational guy. A decent guy. A man of his word," ex-Ali promoter Bob Arum said to the Associated Press. "I'm torn up by Joe dying at this relatively young age. I can't say enough about Joe."
There is no succinct way to summarize who was as much of a giant as Smokin’ Joe. He would live in the shadow of Ali for the rest of their lives after losing the final two bouts of their trilogy, but Frazier was bigger than the shadow he cast. The man who escaped Beaufort, SC, as a teenager with barely $200 in his pockets in the late 1950s would do go on to do great things because of his unmatched heart and determination.
One can’t help but wonder how history would have viewed Frazier had his trainer, Eddie Futch, allowed him to answer the bell in the 15th round of the Thrilla in Manila in 1975.
Futch was trying to save his fighter, whose eye so badly swollen he couldn’t see out of it, but Frazier still had something left while Ali would later describe the exhaustion and punishment he took in that fight as “next to death.”
Maybe Frazier would have been as revered as his more boisterous adversary, who has since been quieted over the years in his bout with Parkinson’s disease.
Though Frazier would never hold a heavyweight championship again after being knocked out in the second round by George Foreman in their 1973 bout, he will forever be remembered as a champion as much as for what he meant as man and the things he accomplished.
He raised a beautiful family, had successful kids and remained an ambassador of his adopted home of Philadelphia right up until his death.
Frazier was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. He is survived by eight children.