Commentary

Frazier was far more than just Ali foil

Updated: November 8, 2011, 4:22 PM ET
By Dan Rafael | ESPN.com

No matter what Joe Frazier did during his great boxing career, and for decades after it was over, he was always known mostly for one thing: being the B-side to Muhammad Ali, with whom he shared the most famous trilogy in boxing history.

In the past 40 years, not a day went by that "Smokin' Joe" wasn't reminded of, asked about or talked about Ali and their three fights.

But Frazier, who personified the term "Philadelphia fighter" with his big heart, action style and indomitable spirit, was much more than just the other guy in the famed series of heavyweight fights. He was a great fighter in his own right, a former heavyweight champion of the world, a 1964 Olympic gold medalist and a worthy member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Remember, without Frazier, the legend of Ali would not be what it became. He needed Frazier to make his name as much as Frazier needed Ali.

Of course, Frazier, who died on Monday at age 67 after a battle with liver cancer, is best known for those fights with Ali.

[+] EnlargeJoe Frazier
AP PhotoJoe Frazier dropped Muhammad Ali in the 15th in their first fight, in 1971, and although Ali got off the canvas, Frazier won the fight and an undisputed championship.

Their first bout, on March 8, 1971, at New York's Madison Square Garden, was one of the most significant fights in boxing history and one of the most famous sporting events of the 20th century. They were undefeated champions when they met in what was simply called "The Fight." Frazier had won a tournament to claim the title that had been stripped from Ali when the latter refused induction into the military during the Vietnam War and was banished from boxing for 3½ years. Because he hadn't lost his title in the ring, Ali was still considered by many to be the legitimate champion.

And even though Ali would get the better of Frazier in their storied rivalry, it was Frazier who won the first fight -- the biggest of them
all -- dropping Ali with his trademark left hook in the 15th and final round and winning a unanimous decision to claim the undisputed championship.

The victory marked the height of Frazier's career, which he concluded with a record of 32-4-1 with 27 knockouts.

"If Joe Frazier would have fought King Kong, he would have knocked him out that night," Gene Kilroy, a friend of both fighters who later managed Ali's business affairs, told The Associated Press. "Nothing was going to stop Joe Frazier."

Frazier's championship ascent began in 1968, when he won the New York State title -- which then was recognized and respected by many as a world title -- by stopping Buster Mathis in the 11th round. Frazier went on to defend it five times against opponents such as Oscar Bonavena and Jerry Quarry.

With Ali still banished from boxing in early 1970, Frazier needed only five rounds to knock out Jimmy Ellis (who had won the tournament to claim the belt that had been stripped from Ali) to unify the titles. Frazier then defended against light heavyweight champion Bob Foster, a Hall of Famer, and knocked him out with -- what else? -- a left hook in the second round.

Frazier had cleared up any questions about the identity of the best heavyweight in the world not named Muhammad Ali. So when Ali was reinstated and subsequently won his first two fights upon returning to the ring in October 1970, it set the stage for the all-time showdown of showdowns.

The victory against Ali validated Frazier's championship. Frazier went on to make two more defenses before running into nemesis George Foreman, who bounced him off the canvas six times en route to a second-round knockout loss in Kingston, Jamaica -- the fight that prompted the famous call of ABC's Howard Cosell: "Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!"

Two fights later, Frazier faced Ali in their second fight, on Jan. 28, 1974, back at Madison Square Garden. It wasn't contested for the world title, but rather a regional belt, and it wasn't nearly as memorable as their other two bouts. Frazier lost a 12-round decision, and the series was even.

Frazier wasn't done yet, though. He won his next two fights to earn another shot at the championship. That meant a rubber match with Ali, who had regained the title with his famed knockout of Foreman in the "Rumble in the Jungle."

So on Oct. 1, 1975, Frazier challenged Ali for the title in "The Thrilla in Manila." In perhaps the greatest heavyweight championship fight ever, Frazier and Ali waged a pitched battle in the sweltering heat of the Araneta Coliseum in suburban Manila in the Philippines.

Both men were battered and bruised when Eddie Futch, Frazier's legendary trainer, humanely stopped the fight after the 14th round. The site of Frazier, his left eye swollen nearly shut, sitting on his stool after the fight with his head down is one of boxing's iconic images -- though he had nothing to be ashamed of after giving every ounce he had in the fight.

Although Ali had beaten Frazier again to go up 2-1 in the series, he had been hurt badly by Frazier. After the fight, Ali famously said, "It was the closest I've come to death."

His legacy long since sealed, Frazier would fight only twice more, getting knocked down twice in a fifth-round knockout loss to Foreman in a rematch in October 1975 and then returning for one final fight, a 10-round draw with Floyd "Jumbo" Cummings in December 1981.

The only men Frazier ever lost to were Ali -- whom he also beat in that first fight -- and Foreman.

Frazier held profound bitterness toward Ali for many years because of the taunts Ali aimed at him during the promotion of their fights. He had called Frazier an "Uncle Tom" before their first fight and referred to him as a "gorilla" before the third fight.

Frazier, who was born Jan. 12, 1944, in Beaufort, S.C., was deeply hurt by the words from Ali, whom he had publicly supported during his exile. Through the years, they went back and forth between feuding and forgiveness. He could compete with Ali inside the ring, but the quieter, shier Frazier -- as much a gentleman outside the ring as he was ferocious inside it -- could not match Ali's mouth.

The last time I saw Frazier, it came as a pleasant and unexpected surprise. I was in the media center at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J., on the night of the Bernard Hopkins-Kelly Pavlik fight in October 2008. Frazier, with a smile a mile wide on his face and wearing his black cowboy hat, was out for a night at the fights and had stopped in to say hello to the reporters.

It was quite a joy to spend a little time with Frazier.

He talked about the state of the heavyweight division -- it was bad, he said -- and he even sang a song, "Blueberry Hill," as I recall.

But like every other day of his life for the past 40 years, Frazier also spent some time reminiscing about the subject that made him most famous, despite all of his other accomplishments: those glorious fights with Muhammad Ali.

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @danrafaelespn.