“Some day me and Joe are going to sit on a back porch in our rocking chairs, making peace and talking about the good old days.”
— Muhammad Ali, 1990
In life, and now in death, their names and lives are inexorably linked together. You could never say Joe Frazier without another voice bringing up Muhammad Ali. And if you begin to talk Ali, you would inevitably talk Frazier.
One made the other, defeated each other, played off each other as much outside the ring as in, and in the greatest era of heavyweight boxing where both Ali and Frazier weren’t simply fighters or athletes, but were cultural figures of another generation, their boxing trilogy and intertwined relationship has been measured in both athletic and sociological terms.
They never did have, as Ali wanted, the opportunity to sit back in their rocking chairs and make peace. Maybe they should have. They were never close, the way some opponents become close in boxing. Over time, Ali lost his ability to communicate verbally, besieged with Parkinson’s Syndrome and Frazier passed away Monday night from liver cancer at the age of 67, never quite getting over the public denigration that Ali had imposed on him, all in the name of self-promotion, hype and ticket sales.
I was fortunate to have spent significant time with Frazier over the years covering boxing, specifically, once in the Poconos at the training camp of Sugar Ray Leonard, and another time in Rochester, before a dinner that honoured George Chuvalo. He talked, we listened, sometimes we understood, sometimes we didn’t but we listened no matter what. He was, after all, Joe Frazer. And what was clear through the conversations, that no matter how much success he had enjoyed in life, as Olympic champion, heavyweight champion, and one of the great fighters of all time, he and Ali had grown old like the Sunshine Boys of boxing, with Frazier not able to forgive or completely comprehend what he believed Ali had done to him.
Ali had set Frazier up as the enemy of the black man in America, a position Joe deeply resented. He had played him in a cultural way: He was pretty; Frazier ugly. He was smart; Frazier not. He was a dancer; Frazier a crude brawler. That was the sell. At the time, the image stuck and hurt and some of the hurt never went away.
“Muhammad and I had our differences and I guess we still do,” Frazier told me back in 1994. “Me and him, we came from different places. We never understood each other. We came from different backgrounds with different religious beliefs.
“I was born and raised in the South. We knew about animosity and bigotry and hatred better than most. If anyone had a reason to hate the white man, it was me. But I didn’t have a feud with the white man, he did.”
Ali had painted Frazier as a villain, calling him an “Uncle Tom”, referring to him as “ugly” or as a “gorilla” and at times Howard Cosell, the famed ABC Television announcer, was party to all the antics. ”I don’t like what he did to me,” said Frazier.
But there was always a pragmatic side to Frazier. “It’s time for us to think like businessmen,” he said. “You can’t grow old carrying this around. Twenty years from now, I’m going to be 70. Everywhere I go people want to talk about me and Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Ali and me, and I wonder how long this will go on.”
He never did reach 70, but the talk never ended. He and Ali. Ali and him. They fought three times and two of them are all-time classics. The first fight came after Ali came back to boxing having been banished for his failure to enter the U.S. Army. The buildup was immense, with Frazier as heavyweight champion, Ali as populist No. 1 contender: It was billed as The Fight of the Century and the billing was not hyperbole. The 15-rounds weren’t just memorable. They were a freeze frame of boxing history.
Their third fight, the 14 rounds better known as the “Thrilla in Manila” came more than four years later. Again, the title wasn’t just appropriate, it was telling. At the end of the final round, with Frazier ready to come out and fight through one blinded eye, trainer Eddie Futch put a stop to the bout.
“The closest you can be to death,” Ali later described the fight.
Thirty-six years later, the death of Frazier became official. The cause, not boxing, but liver cancer. The memories will live longer than both.