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The “Fight of the Century” saw Joe Frazier, left, batter Muhammad Ali to keep the heavyweight championship.

Associated Press (1971)

The “Fight of the Century” saw Joe Frazier, left, batter Muhammad Ali to keep the heavyweight championship.

PHILADELPHIA — He beat Muhammad Ali in the "Fight of the Century," battled him nearly to the death in the "Thrilla in Manila."

Then Joe Frazier spent the rest of his life trying to fight his way out of the shadow of Ali, known as "the Greatest.''

That was one fight Frazier never could win.

He was once a heavyweight champion, and a great one at that. 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 in March 1971.

But he bore the burden of being Ali's foil, and paid the price. Bitter for years about the taunts his nemesis once threw his way, Frazier only in recent times came to terms with what happened and said he forgave Ali for everything he said.

Frazier, who died Monday night after a brief battle with liver cancer at the age of 67, will forever be linked to Ali.

But no one in boxing would ever dream of anointing Ali "The Greatest" unless he, too, was linked to Smokin' Joe.

"You can't mention Ali without mentioning Joe Frazier," said former AP boxing writer Ed Schuyler Jr. "He beat Ali, don't forget that."

They fought three times, twice in New York and once in a steamy arena in the Philippines. They went 41 rounds together, neither giving an inch and both giving 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.

Outside of the ring, Ali called Frazier 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 Ali in a battle of unbeatens, a fight so big Frank Sinatra shot pictures for Life magazine at ringside and both fighters earned an astonishing $2.5 million.

The night at the Garden 40 years ago remained fresh in Frazier's mind as he talked about his life, career and relationship with Ali a few months before he died.

"I can't go nowhere where it's not mentioned," he told AP. "That was the greatest thing that ever happened in my life."

He once said of that fight: "He said if I whipped him that night, he would get on his knees, crawl across the ring, and say: 'You are the greatest.' But he didn't do that. I think he was trying to get to the hospital."

Bob Arum, who promoted Ali, 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 by his family, who asked to grieve privately and said they would announce "our father's homecoming celebration" as soon as possible.

Manny Pacquiao, who fights Juan Manuel Marquez Saturday night in Las Vegas and has a powerful left hook much like Frazier, said: "Boxing lost a great champion, and the sport lost a great ambassador."

Frazier was small for a heavyweight, weighing 205 pounds when he won the title by stopping Jimmy Ellis in the fifth round in 1970 at Madison Square Garden. He fought every minute of every round going forward behind a vicious left hook.

His reign as champion lasted four fights — including the win over Ali — before he ran into an even more fearsome slugger. George Foreman dropped him three times in the first round and three in the second to win their 1973 fight in Jamaica — the fight is perhaps less famous than announcer Howard Cosell's repeated yell, "Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!"

Two fights later, Frazier met Ali in a rematch. Ali won a 12-round decision, and later that year stopped Foreman in the "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire.

The final fight of the Ali-Frazier trilogy, in Manila, is seared into boxing history.

Frazier went after Ali round after round, making Ali backpedal. But Ali responded and even the intense heat couldn't stop the two.

"They told me Joe Frazier was through," Ali told Frazier at one point during the fight.

"They lied," Frazier said, before hitting Ali with a left hook.

Finally, Frazier simply couldn't see and Futch would not let him go out for the 15th round.

Frazier never won another bout. He fought twice more, getting knocked out in a rematch with Foreman in 1976 and drawing against journeyman Jumbo Cummings in a 1981 comeback.

Born Jan. 12, 1944, in Beaufort, S.C., Frazier went on to open a gym in Philadelphia – where he lived most of his life and became a sporting icon — and saw son Marvis become a heavyweight fighter.

Joe Frazier 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.

Frazier got his nickname from his first trainer, Yank Durham, who would tell him in the dressing room: "Go out there, (expletive), and make smoke come from those gloves.' "

by the numbers

Weeks as heavyweight champion


Pro victories


Wins by


Pro losses
(two to Muhammad Ali, two to George


Times as Ring Magazine's Fighter of the Year; only Ali (5) and Joe Louis (4) have won it more


gold medal (heavyweight, 1964 Tokyo Games)

GREAT IN OWN RIGHT 11/07/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 1:32am]
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