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The Greatest - Sporting Rivalries: Muhammad Ali v Joe Frazier

Boxing’s defining rivalry, in its defining weight class, in its defining era.

While Sugar Ray Robinson was the pioneering boxer of the lower weight classes in the 1940s and 50s, it wasn’t until the 1980s when the Fab Four of Hagler, Hearns, Duran and Leonard really grabbed the spotlight.

But the 1960s and 70s were all about the heavyweights.

Patterson, Liston, Foreman, Norton, and of course, Ali and Frazier.

While it’s true that the greatest are all great in their own right, the very elite typically have an opposite number, spurring them on, making them greater still.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal exchanging Grand Slams; Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo exchanging Ballons d’Or, and Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier exchanging blows and world heavyweight titles.

In many ways it was the perfect rivalry. Both men had contrasting styles out of the ring as well as in it.

The Louisville Lip was as good an orator as he was a pugilist, whereas Smokin’ Joe preferred to do his talking exclusively in the ring.

Not unheard of with sworn enemies, the pair actually started out as friends.

Ali had conquered the boxing world, beating the fearsome Sonny Liston twice – as an underdog both times – to become world heavyweight champion.

But having joined the Nation of Islam, Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay, and as the war in Vietnam intensified throughout the 60s, Ali refused to be drafted into the army. He knew full well the consequences of being a conscientious objector; he would lose his boxing titles and be sentenced to prison.

Ali was found guilty of violating Selective Service laws, which was upheld by the court of appeal, though he remained a free man having appealed to the US Supreme Court.

During his suspension from boxing, Ali became a prominent voice in the civil rights movement, at which time Ali struck up a friendship with Frazier, working with his future adversary.

Frazier lent Ali money in his absence from boxing, and even petitioned President Richard Nixon to reinstate Ali’s licence, under the promise that he’d be able to shut Ali up. That was all too tempting for Nixon.

Nonetheless, Ali spent three-and-a-half years out of the ring, robbed of his prime boxing years, and was usurped by Frazier at the pinnacle of the sport.

This wasn’t just benevolence on Frazier’s part, however; he knew a fight with Ali would make him more money than in any of his previous fights, and Ali knew the same.

They’d actually planned their futures together in the ring, almost conspiratorially, contemplating how much they’d make out of it.

Frazier was an unbeaten world champion, but there was another unbeaten world champion out there wanting to prove he was still the man.

Ali would build hype for the fight, claiming the title was still his – all the while still without a licence to even try and reclaim the title.

Frazier was able to laugh off Ali’s words, for he was in on the act. But the act would take a more sinister turn.

Ali insulted everyone he fought, but he reserved a special vitriol for Frazier. A “big ugly bear” was one insult, but the taunts would get much worse.

Set in the backdrop of a racially-divided America, the fight would take place 16 years after Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus; eight years after Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech; and three years after his assassination.

The fight was not only significant from a sporting perspective, but also a social and cultural perspective.

Despite both men being African-American, Ali had managed to make race a divisive issue; of all the insults hurled at Frazier, Ali calling Frazier an ‘Uncle Tom’ cut the deepest. For Ali, the ‘white man’ was the enemy, and Frazier was their representative.

Ironic, considering Frazier was as working class as they came, and hailed from a much more impoverished background than Ali.

But as a leading voice in the civil rights movement and an anti-war protester, Ali represented ethnic minorities and those wanting an end to the conflict in Vietnam; Frazier – unintentionally – represented everyone else.

Ali had gone from Olympic hero of 1960 to one of the most hated men in America, and his brash – even arrogant – ways did little to re-endear him to the American public.

Frazier, meanwhile, was the blue-collar fighter, taking on the enemy of the state.

While Ali called Frazier an Uncle Tom, Frazier called Ali Clay. It rubbed many of the African American community the wrong way, and further enhanced the perception that Frazier was fighting for White America, and Ali was fighting for Black America.

Frazier/Ali had transcended boxing and indeed sport itself; Frazier/Ali had captured the entire nation.

Both men had succeeded in getting under the other’s skin, and the hatred between the pair had become very real. So much so that Frazier prayed before the fight that he would kill Ali.

The world was ready for the Fight of the Century.

Before Las Vegas, Madison Square Garden was the epicentre of the fight game, with the world’s eyes on New York City.

To gauge a sense of just how far-reaching and significant this event was, it was not only watched by hundreds of millions of people worldwide, including around half of the United Kingdom, but it even brought a temporary halt to the fighting in Northern Ireland.

It was the fight that simply could not be missed.

Ali started well, taking the first two rounds with an unrelenting pace, but Frazier, applying his trademark pressure-fighter style, grew into the fight, taking many of the middle rounds. With hands down, Frazier made Ali miss with tremendous head movement, denying Ali’s jab as the challenger began to slow down.

And while the fight was largely back-and-forth, it took until the ninth round for Ali to take another round on all three scorecards.

He appeared to have got his second wind, taking the 10th, but the 11th was Frazier’s finest round, wobbling Ali, who was seemingly there for the taking. Staggering around the ring, Ali looked like he could’ve been blown over by a gentle breeze, but the cautious Frazier recalled that “a man’s always dangerous when he’s hurt”, and Ali was allowed to see out the round.

Ali would later admit his legs were gone at this point, and the tank was as good as empty. But Ali fought back gamely, even taking the 14th, but needed a knockout in the final three minutes.

Frazier didn’t know that, and continued looking to stop Ali. He would land the most picture-perfect left hook, which he’d thrown all evening, connecting with Ali’s jaw. It would have stopped a lesser man in his tracks. But despite the sheer exhaustion felt by Ali, he bounced back up at the count of three to hear the final bell.

Neither man took a backward step for 45 minutes. The fight the world was watching somehow managed to exceed the hype; fought at a relentless, unforgiving pace.

But while there was a fairly conclusive ending to the fight, Ali denied he’d lost, claiming it was “a white man’s decision”, while Frazier wanted apologies for Ali’s words.

A quick look at each fighter and you’d be forgiven for thinking Ali had been the victor. But for the massive swelling on his jaw, which people mistook for a break, Ali looked ready to go another 15 rounds. Frazier, meanwhile, had swelling all over his face.

But this was more indicative of each fighter’s tactics; Ali wanted to jab the head off Frazier and keep him at a distance; Frazier wanted to work Ali’s body in order to slow him down. The latter man’s plan was more effective.

Frazier, who had suffered with high blood pressure in the build-up to the fight, was hospitalised with the same condition. So gruelling was the bout, rumours emerged that Frazier had actually passed away in hospital. Upon hearing the rumour, Ali claimed if it was true, he’d never fight again.

Thankfully, it wasn’t true, and Frazier was discharged.

Smokin’ Joe would lose his title less than two years later against George Foreman, and after Ali lost – and subsequently beat – Ken Norton, the pair would clash again to decide who would challenge Foreman for his title.

The cultural landscape in America had changed by the time of the second fight. The United States’ presence in Vietnam had long been losing support, the civil rights movement wasn’t as prominent, Ali wasn’t public enemy #1 having had his conviction overturned by the Supreme Court, and on top of it all, both fighters were seen as past their peak; both beaten, both older.

An appearance on the Dick Cavett Show would go someway to reigniting the spark; Ali once again playing the role of court jester, Frazier maintaining a steely gaze throughout.

Things then came to a head when the pair sat down with broadcaster Howard Cosell to rewatch the fight.

While both largely kept the peace throughout, Ali once again made jibes at Frazier.

The Fight of the Century went the full 15 rounds; the rewatch didn’t get past the 10th.

Frazier brought up Ali’s hospital visit after the fight, Ali retaliated, calling Frazier ‘ignorant’. Frazier rose to his feet, Ali eventually met him, grabbed him by the back of the neck and a scuffle ensued.

It was no more than you’d see in a school playground, but it was enough for Frazier to leave the studio, leaving Ali to watch the rest of the fight with Cosell.

Ali claimed, more so in the run-up to the second fight, that he bore no animosity towards Frazier; but he would be a mortal enemy when they met in the ring. The pokes at Frazier told a different story, however, and it’s something Frazier couldn’t quite get his head around. Ali made a career out of getting into the heads of opponents.

Frazier didn’t understand why Ali overstepped the mark on so many occasions; Ali didn’t understand why he wasn’t understood.

The second fight had neither the hype nor the quality of the first, as Ali changed tack, winning a narrow decision.

Ali would then face Foreman in the legendary Rumble in the Jungle, upsetting the odds again, to reclaim the world heavyweight title, setting up a trilogy fight with Frazier 11 months later.

People will forever debate whether the first or the third fight was the best of the trilogy. What will not be debated is that they are to this day two of the greatest fights of all time.

Ali was initially hesitant to fight Frazier again, but had been convinced that Frazier was finished. Smokin’ Joe had lost in two rounds in the legendary “Down goes Frazier!” defeat to George Foreman, then lost to Ali in their rematch.

The reality couldn’t have been more different.

Ali reignited his invective towards Frazier, no longer calling him a “big ugly bear” but a “gorilla” instead, prompting his famous – or perhaps infamous – “it’ll be a thrilla, and a chilla, and a killa, when I get the gorilla, in Manila”.

Fought at 10am local time in the Philippines, the bout was contested in a baking-hot arena. Spectators recalled the sweltering heat and humidity, saying there was not a breath of air in the arena, never mind in the ring, under the additional heat of the lights.

Frazier started as slowly as ever, but the fight exploded in the third round, with both men whipping ferocious haymakers back and forth. Ali would employ the rope-a-dope strategy that had served him well as Frazier continued launching ineffective shots into the champion’s guard, until Ali said ‘enough’ and decided to fight fire with fire.

The middle rounds were fought with a similar intensity, reminiscent of their first fight, and they would maintain an impossible pace entering the closing rounds.

The 13th saw Ali land a right hook which propelled Frazier’s mouthpiece into orbit. Frazier’s left eye was already in a poor condition prior to the fight, with a series of left hands from Ali nearly closing his right eye.

Both men were spent by the end of the 14th, and the 15th, should it have reached the final round, would’ve been a morbid spectacle.

The fight was an exhibition in how close to the brink two men could physically and mentally push each other, as if they were fighting for their lives in a gladiatorial arena. 

With the fight coming to a close, both men had once again poured their utmost into the fight, leaving both heart and soul in the ring. Over the 14 rounds, the pair had landed a combined 797 punches, 702 of which were power punches. The gruelling nature of the trilogy, and the last fight in particular, had a lasting impact on both Ali and Frazier.

Smokin’ Joe only fought once more – another loss to George Foreman – before retiring. Ali claimed it was the closest he’d been to death, and graciously said Frazier was the greatest boxer of all time next to him.

Both men had lost several pounds of fluids throughout the fight, taking themselves to the brink of exhaustion. There was literally nothing left to give. Ali had told his corner to take his gloves off; he was done. But only moments earlier, Frazier’s trainer Eddie Futch had announced his retirement from the fight. He felt his man could not continue.

And it quite perfectly encapsulated the trilogy and indeed the lives of both fighters. There was nothing but a few seconds between each man winning and losing. Ali would be a wealthy man for the rest of his life, while Frazier’s wealth was sorely mismanaged, and he ended up living in a humble apartment above his gym, where he trained for the Fight of the Century – the gym he was eventually forced to sell.

Ali was chosen to light the Olympic torch, while Frazier – a fellow Olympic champion – was overlooked. Frazier was embittered by this, and even remarked that given the chance, he’d have pushed his old foe into the cauldron.

Ali would go down as the GOAT, Frazier did not; overshadowed by the man who bested him by mere seconds.

It is a rivalry that was never quite settled in the ring. Despite Ali winning two of the three fights, Frazier would point to his adversary suffering with Parkinson’s and claim that, actually, he won all three.

There were also instances of Frazier calling Ali “damaged goods” in relation to his battle with Parkinson’s, and references to ‘Cassius Clay’ throughout his autobiography, and claiming Ali paid the price in his later life for the things he said and did as a younger man.

Ali forever insisted that while he may have crossed a line, he only ever said what he said to sell a fight. Frazier may have questioned the logic or indeed the necessity, considering the pair were getting paid $2.5m each regardless of how well their first fight sold. And once Ali had made the remarks he had, there was no going back.

While Frazier’s animosity did eventually simmer somewhat, you sense he was never fully at peace with Ali.

It’s a rivalry that was taken to the grave, and a rivalry that may never be seen again. 

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