Joe Frazier: Curtain Call for a Champion

David BurnettCorrespondent INovember 8, 2011

19 Jul 1996:  Former boxer Joe Frazier looks on at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. Mandatory Credit: Markus Boesch  /Allsport
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Perhaps in death Joe Frazier will finally get his due.

The former heavyweight champion of the world, who died at age 67 from liver cancer on Monday, will always be linked to his chief boxing nemesis and tormentor, Muhammad Ali—a man he fought three times.

That first fight against Ali, 40 years ago, remains boxing’s all-time classic—it was dubbed the “Fight of the Century.”

The 15-round war in New York’s Madison Square Garden saw Frazier knockdown Ali, and break his jaw, to become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.  It would be Frazier’s only victory over Ali.

It’s been 36 years since Joe Frazier last fought a meaningful fight, and even that fight was against Muhammad Ali—the Thrilla in Manila. 

In the sweltering Philippines’ heat Joe, who fought valiantly and courageously, wanted to keep fighting, but mercifully his corner said enough, throwing in the towel in the 14th round.

Smokin' Joe was never the same after that fight, but neither was an equally battered Muhammad Ali.

Ironically, even as I write this obituary, I too have already mentioned Ali too many times.  This was the fate Joe Frazier was too often defined by.

Joe never got over, or got past his Ali connection.

Getty Images/Getty Images

Let me speak for a moment about that. The hurt, the pain and the indignities that Joe suffered from the insults hurled at him by Ali were inexcusable.  All of us who were boxing fans at the time should take some blame, and feel ashamed.

The taunts were vicious, cruel and unjust.  Ali called him a gorilla and an Uncle Tom, and most of us foolishly just laughed, saying nothing in Joe’s defense.  Not once was Ali called on the heartlessness of it.  In the meantime, Joe Frazier never really got over it.   It’s a pain he surely has taken to his grave.

Often overlooked is the fact that after Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title for refusing to be inducted into the Army during the Vietnam War, and it was Joe Frazier who many times loaned him money and provided him moral support.

On his own merit, Frazier really was a great fighter.  He was a Golden Gloves champion, and a gold medal winner in the 1964 Olympic Games.

Joe Frazier was short for heavyweight, about the size of Mike Tyson—and just as explosive.  His compact punches coming from an odd, crouching, swarming style were hard to defend against—just ask Ali.

Frazier’s post-boxing career saw him mentor his son Marvis, and other boxers.   For the most part he lived quietly behind the scenes in his adopted hometown of Philadelphia in virtual obscurity, coming out only occasionally to various boxing galas and events.

Joe Frazier was worthy of his own spotlight, but in life it was usually reserved for someone else—Ali, most of the time.  Joe was only the co-star.  In death, though, we owe Joe a curtain call and a much-deserved standing ovation.

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