Smokin’ Joe Frazier’s death marks the passing of one of boxing’s most exciting fighters and though Frazier won an Olympic gold at Tokyo 1964 and was the undisputed world heavyweight champion from 1970-1973 he will always be remembered for his part in boxing’s greatest rivalry with Muhammed Ali.
The two fighters were the perfect foil for each other: Ali, the charismatic anti-establishment intellectual and Frazier, the hardboiled tough guy who left school at 13 to work as a farmhand.
Ali goaded Frazier’s upbringing throughout his career by calling him a ‘gorilla’ and an ‘Uncle Tom’, while Frazier always referred to Ali by his birth name Cassisus Clay, refusing to acknowledge his Muslim identity.
The pair fought three times throughout their rivalry and the bitterness never faded – in 1996 when Ali lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta, Frazier told a reporter he’d have liked to have thrown Ali into the fire.
In 2006 Frazier took a more philosophical view of their place in each other’s legends, telling the New York Times: “I am who I am, and yes, I whipped Ali all three times.
“Ali always said I would be nothing without him, but who would he have been without me?”
SportsNewsIreland looks back at the three great fights between Ali and Frazier.
No 1: ‘Fight of the century’- Madison Square Garden, New York, March 8, 1971
The first fight between the two was hotly anticipated as it marked Ali’s first fight since 1967 when he was stripped of his title and had his boxing licence revoked for his refusal to fight in the Vietnam war. In a fight referred to as “The Fight of the Century”, Ali was devestated by Smokin’ Joe’s left hook. Under trainer Joe Futch’s instructions Frazier unleashed his left as soon as Ali dropped his right hand, first connecting in the 11th round leaving Ali wobbling and finally dropping him in the 15th. The entralling contest went the full distance with Frazier winning by unanimous decision, thus inflicting Ali’s first career defeat and cementing a rivalry that would define both men’s careers.
No 2: The re-match – Madison Square Garden, New York, January 28, 1974
In 1973 Frazier came up against the undefeated George Foreman and was dominated by the taller, stronger man, losing his title after being stopped in the sixth round. Both fighters were hospitalised following the Fight of the Century so it was perhaps of little surprise that they decided to hold back in the rematch and in contrast to the electric nature of their first encounter, the fight was marred by much holding and little action. Ali though made sure what little he did counted and he won the 12 round contest by unanimous decision.
No 3: Thrilla in Manila- Araneta Coliseum, Philippines, October 1, 1975
The final fight between the pair was the most bitter, taking its name from a pre-fight press conference where Ali said, “It’s gonna be a thrilla, and a chilla, and a killa, when I get the Gorilla in Manila.” The fight itself was fittingly brutal and goes down as one of the greatest sporting contests of all time. Ali came out fighting before Frazier got a foothold in the middle rounds but with both men struggling in the intense heat, Frazier tired in the 10th round and took a pummelling. Ali was landing so many combinations that midway through the 13th round he sent Frazier’s mouthguard flying into the crowd. With his eyes’ swollen to the point where he was practically blinded, Frazier’s coach Eddie Futch threw in the towel at the end of the 14th, despite the fighter’s protests. Futch’s reasoned with his man, “It’s all over. No one will forget what you did here tonight.” It later emerged that Ali too was struggling and he had walked back to his corner after the 14th and told them to remove his gloves as he couldn’t fight another round, Ali later said that, “Frazier quit just before I did. I didn’t think I could fight any more.” In a rare moment of praise for his greatest rival Ali said after the fight, “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.”