It was the stuff of novels. The relationship between heavyweight boxing icons Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier was antagonistic, bitter and, at the same time, symbiotic. This week, the world said “goodbye” to Frazier, 67, who died on November 7. There was an outpouring of tributes this week at a service for Frazier in Philadelphia. Anybody who grew up in the 1970s will never forget the three epic bouts between Ali and Frazier, as well as their complicated relationship outside the ring. A would-be novelist would have a hard time in determining which one was the protagonist and which one was the antagonist, but it was a compelling and ever-changing story nonetheless.
They were polar opposites. Ali was charismatic, loud, and boastful, proclaiming, “I am the greatest!” Frazier was a quiet, humble man. Prior to their first fight in 1971, Ali demeaned Frazier, describing him as an Uncle Tom and the white man’s boxer, and worse things. Frazier quietly absorbed the verbal blows. On March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden, Frazier knocked Ali to the canvass in the 14th round, eventually handing the seemingly invincible Ali his first defeat. Ali avenged that defeat on January 28, 1974 at the Garden.
It was their third fight, the “Thrilla in Manila,” that fans remember the most. Eyewitnesses called the October 1, 1975 bout one of the most savage fights in history, with each boxer pummeling the other for 14 rounds. It ended when Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, refused to send his fighter out for the 15th round, over Frazier’s strenuous objections. Ali attempted to find Frazier after the fight to apologize for all the awful things he had said about him over the years. He asked Frazier’s son to relay his apology to Frazier and he publicly apologized. Frazier bristled, saying Ali should have apologized to his face.
Over the years, Frazier became bitter about the way Ali characterized him. Ali seemed genuinely sorry as he reflected on his actions.
The full picture of Frazier was of a man of decency and humility. Frazier had lobbied President Nixon in support of Ali’s reinstatement as a boxer after Ali refused to serve his country in the military. He even reportedly loaned Ali money during the period when he was barred from fighting.
When I was growing up, I was enamored of Ali. He was hip, proud and provocative. He had a way with words. His famous motto, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” became part of the American lexicon. Ali backed up his boasts with results. He was an outsized personality and his swagger captivated a nation that was reeling from Vietnam and Watergate.
Over the years, my admiration for Ali has waned somewhat and my respect for Frazier has grown.
What lessons can we draw as writers from these two legendary boxers? One is that words matter. Ali claimed at the time that he demonized Frazier to promote greater interests in their bouts. He really didn’t mean those terrible things he said. I believe him, but still, Ali’s insults hurt Frazier deeply. Whether it’s the spoken or written word, we must take great care not to hurt people. Another lesson is the way the two men grew as individuals from their heated rivalry. I believe they had made peace with each other by the time Frazier died and Ali’s glowing praise of his fallen rival is testimony to that. Finally, we’ve learned that victory comes with a price. Their dignity and their physical health suffered as a result of their rivalry.
So now one rival is gone and we bid farewell to a good man, Joe Frazier. Rest in peace, Joe.