For most of the 20th century, the Heavyweight Champion of the World was the most honored and revered title in all of individual sports. Tonight, with the passing of Joe Frazier, one of best to ever wear the crown is gone.
The measure of any champion is the quality of his competition. If Muhammad Ali really was “the greatest”, it is because of George Foreman and Ken Norton and especially Joe Frazier.
Frazier was a great champion in his own right. He held the title for five years, from 1968 to 1973, before getting knocked out by Foreman. His career, however, will forever be defined by his relationship with Ali. Ali and Frazier formed the greatest individual rivalry in sports history. Russell and Chamberlain, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Williams and DiMaggio, they all take a back seat to Ali and Frazier. It is partially because the nature of the sport puts the two against each other in the most basic and direct and pure way; it is also because both men, inside and outside of the ring, were giants who commanded respect and attention.
In the most eagerly anticipated fight ever, the “fight of the century”, the first match with Ali, Frazier dominated and defended his title, proving to any doubters that he was legitimate. In the third and final Ali-Frazier fight, the “thriller in Manila”, in 1975, both fighters were well past their prime. But, like great rivals do, they brought out the best in each other, and turned back time, and fought the hardest and most vicious and best heavyweight championship fight in my lifetime, if not ever.
In the ring, Ali and Frazier were studies in contrast, opposites that when blended together formed perfection and transcended the sport. Ali was all about grace and speed, his toes barely touching the canvas as he’d shuffle around the ring and release left jabs with blinding speed, then when the moment was right, he’d unleash a flurry of combinations, a fluid blur of power and fury . Frazier, on the other hand, was strength and determination, his feet on the ground, he may as well have been wearing combat boots, as he’d bob and weave and bore straight into his opponents, swatting off punches like they were annoying flies, until he was inside his opponent’s reach, where his powerful and famous and inevitable left hook would be launched, with his arm seemingly starting on the floor and picking up momentum and power until it landed on his opponent’s head, launching beads of sweat airborne. Ali and Frazier in the ring were like a high school geography lesson, as Ali would dance perfect circles around the ring, while Frazier would define the radius, starting in the center and boring in on a straight line, circumnavigating and dividing Ali’s circles into sectors and segments.
Outside the ring, they were also contrasting personalities. Ali was self promotion and bombast, Frazier was quiet dignity. Ali was an artist and extrovert; Frazier was a craftsman and introvert. Ali was obnoxious and over the top, but he was also funny and witty and charming, and eventually he’d get a laugh or a smile out of even his harshest critics. Frazier was none of these; he never seemed at ease in the public eye, yet his mere presence commanded respect. Frazier’s dignity was strong enough to withstand even Ali’s relentless taunting and baiting.
It will always be a subject of debate among fans whether Ali really was “the greatest” or not. But anybody who ever saw Joe Frazier at his best wouldn’t hesitate to put him up there not only with Ali, but also with Dempsey and Tunney and Louis and Marciano. It doesn’t seem very likely that the world will ever see men like these again, men who were truly worthy of the title Heavyweight Champion of the World.