Joe Frazier Loses Fight with Cancer

Just as presidents are always called “Mr. President,” so every boxer who put on gloves and won a championship can call himself champ, even if he’s turned into a chump.

“The champ is dead,” read one headline, and you might be forgiven if you thought that Muhammad Ali, the man who in many people’s minds is THE champ, had passed. But when news came that Smokin’ Joe Frazier, the man with the fierce left-handed punch and the bearing of a modest man, had died, for sure a little piece of Muhammad Ali died too.

The two men, along with George Foreman, provided a level of high-stakes drama in heavyweight boxing annals rarely seen before and never seen since. Ali, through astonishing boxing skills and a charismatic, brash, brassy, exultant ego and personality, achieved untouchable-icon status in the American boxing pantheon – something the quiet, stolid, straight-ahead Frazier never managed. He merely punched the sun god into the canvas, and in three fights, one of which was the Fight of the Century, the other the Thrilla in Manila, he solidified the legends of both men by being unstoppable, even in two defeats.

Every obituary of Frazier, who died at the young age of 67 after a shockingly brief bout with liver cancer, talked about his fights with Ali, who treated Frazier in those days with all the sharp-tongued jabbing and malice the man was famous for and capable of. To African Americans, Ali was the hero, Frazier was the inarticulate foil, which in hindsight, was patently unfair to Frazier, and perhaps overlooked some of Ali’s more cruel flaws. Ali, after all, stood up to the powers that be for refusing to enter the draft, a costly, controversial and principled move when many African American soldiers were dying in Viet Nam. Ali was always the jabber, the rope-a-doper, the poet, the sting-like-a-bee dancer in the ring. Frazier was in the mode of Joe Louis and, more so, Dempsey and Rocky Marciano, inelegant but frighteningly lethal punchers.

“I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration,” Ali said. “My sympathy goes out to his family and loved ones.”

Gracious words from the former champ who still suffers from the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease. Not so gracious were the references that described Frazier as a gorilla, to better to rhyme with Manila, and calling him an Uncle Tom. Frazier could not get over the slights, the smirks and the insults. When Ali lit the Olympic torch in 1996 in Atlanta, Frazier’s response to a request for a comment was “They should have thrown him in.”

But he forgave if not forgot. “I forgive him,” Frazier said just before the 40th anniversary of his first fight with Ali, in which he floored him, a first for Ali. “He’s in a bad way.”

Ali, in fact, respected Frazier’s courage as a fighter, no more so than in the third fight in Manila, in one of those raw, impossibly brutal fights where no one ever backed off. By the 14th round Frazier couldn’t see and his trainer refused to let him come out to fight the final round. Ali was almost as exhausted and beat up.

“Closest thing to dying that I know of,” Ali reportedly said. In a post-fight interview, he said, “Joe Frazier, I’ll tell the world right now, brings out the best in me. I’m gonna tell ya, that’s one helluva man, and God Bless him.”

“He’s the greatest fighter of all times, next to me.”

To the people that knew Frazier in Philadelphia, where he is an icon, he didn’t need to stand next to anybody. He was as upright as any man could be.

Foreman, made one of the most genial and well-liked sports self-promoters who ever lived, took Frazier’s title from him, but lost it quickly to Ali who rope-a-doped him in Zaire in another fight of the century. “Good night, Joe Frazier. I love you dear friends, George Foreman,” it said on Foreman’s twitter page.

When you look at the sporting scene today, it’s all about money, very little about character and there are no heavyweights on the boxing scene who could carry Frazier’s coffee or take on Ali in his prime and have a chance of two rounds, let alone 15. Lots of razzle and dazzle out there, just some no-names wrapped in title belts that blot out the sun and media money, not much class.

Class he had in abundance. If class were money, Frazier died a rich man.


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