Ali vs. Frazier: The wars between the greats

Originally published September 12, 2000

In his big hand is the invitation HBO sent out for the Philadelphia screening of the documentary, "Ali-Frazier I: One Nation. . .Divisible. " Disgustedly, Joe Frazier holds it up and says, "See this picture? " On the cover of the card is an action shot of Joe and Muhammad Ali, and Joe is not altogether pleased with the photographic selection. To begin with, the photo is from Ali-Frazier III. . . "The Thrilla in Manila," which happened to be a fight Ali won. Worse, the photo shows Ali winging Frazier with a shot to the head. "He had a busted-up jaw and both his eyes were closed," Joe says of the wreckage he conveyed upon Ali in that first fight. "But here he looks like he just walked out of the dressing room."

You probably are saying to yourself at this point, "Come on, Joe. Why in the world would you get worked up over such a small matter? " But when it comes to Muhammad Ali, there are no such things as small matters to Joe Frazier - just oversights and injustices and an unending flow of bile. A part of Joe Frazier feels as if he always has been shortchanged, if not by the chroniclers of ring history then surely by Ali himself. In a legendary rivalry that spanned three fights from 1971 to 1975 - the first and third of which were extraordinary theater - Frazier saw his cheerful pride deeply wounded as Ali attacked him with vile hate language. Characterized by Ali as an "Uncle Tom," "ignorant" and even a "gorilla," Frazier held a grudge so intense that he wrote in his autobiography, "If we were twins in the belly of our mama, I'd reach over and strangle him. "

But Frazier says now that he and Ali are too old to squabble. Up at his North Broad Street gym with his son, Marvis, Frazier peers out from beneath the brim of a black Borsalino hat and says, "Heck, 'The Butterfly' and I are both granddaddies now. " Criticized for his comments when a sickly Ali summoned his strength to gallantly light the Olympic flame at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta (Joe said he gladly would have pushed him into the roaring fire), Frazier has adopted a more politically correct stance toward Ali at the urging of Marvis and others. But that is not to say he no longer harbors certain feelings on the subject of Ali or the three fights they had together. While Ali galvanized his place in the annals of boxing by beating Joe in two of those three bouts, Frazier feels Ali is no better than the fifth-greatest heavyweight ever behind himself, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Sonny Liston. He also insists: "Ali would not be Ali unless I had come along. "

"Him and me had three fights," Joe says. "He won two of them, I won one. But if you look at him now, you can see who won them all. Me! "

MARCH 8, 1971

Joe Frazier was staying at the Pierre Hotel in New York the night before what was being called "The Fight of the Century. " Joined by five detectives for the automobile trip to New York and then a police escort from the Holland Tunnel into Manhattan, Frazier checked into the City Squire on Seventh Avenue, but fled to the Pierre because of a bomb threat. Frazier thought he was well hidden away when the phone in his room rang. It was Ali, who had sequestered himself at Madison Square Garden in order to shield himself from the mobs on the streets.

"Joe Frazier, you ready? " Ali asked.

Frazier said he was.

"You know what? " Frazier told him. "You preach that you're one of God's men. Well, we'll see. "

"You sure you're not scared, Joe Frazier? "

"Scared of what I'm going to do to you? " Frazier replied with a laugh.

Getting to this point had been a long climb for Frazier. The youngest of 11 children born to a one-armed South Carolina bootlegger, Joe at age 15 took a Greyhound north to New York. There, he stayed with his brother, Tommy, in Brooklyn, and fed himself by selling stolen cars to a junkyard for $50. When be beat it to Philadelphia "a step ahead of the law," he weighed 220 pounds and talked his way into a job at Cross Brothers slaughterhouse, where he used to slam slabs of beef with combinations (Sylvester Stallone would take that from him for "Rocky" years later). Joe began going to the PAL gym to lose weight and became acquainted with manager Yank Durham, who shaped him into a top amateur and guided him to a gold medal - the first ever for an American heavyweight - at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. (Ali, as Cassius Clay, had won the gold as a light-heavyweight four years earlier in Rome. )

Tensions between Ali and Frazier escalated as the fight approached. While Joe once had warm feelings for Ali (he occasionally loaned Ali money while he was suspended from boxing for dodging the draft, and lobbied vigorously for Ali's reinstatement to the ring), Frazier felt betrayed as Ali began ridiculing him verbally. With Ali elevated into a figure of crusading principles for the racially oppressed as a spokesman for the "Black Muslims," Joe unfairly became seen as a sympathizer to a white government that was sending poor black men to be slaughtered in Vietnam. When Ali came to Philadelphia one day in 1970, a big crowd formed as he summoned Frazier to a showdown in Fairmount Park; Joe declined the invitation. With the showdown between the undefeated heavyweights just hours away and Frazier's title squarely on the line, Joe, who had ascended to the championship while Ali had been in exile, knelt down in his dressing room at Madison Square Garden and said a prayer: "God, let me survive this night. God grant me strength. And God. . .allow me to kick the [bleep] out of this [bleep]. "

With extravagantly plumed celebrities jammed elbow-to-elbow at ringside - including Frank Sinatra, who was shooting photographs for Life - Ali came out swinging at the opening bell. Giving away 41/2 inches in height and 91/2 pounds, Frazier appeared tentative as Ali won the first three rounds easily. Urged on in his corner by Durham, who told him, "You gonna get us both killed the way you going," Frazier began picking up the tempo in the fourth, fifth and sixth. Willing to absorb two and three punches for each one he landed, Frazier plowed ahead as Ali came off his toes and drifted to the ropes. There, in the seventh and eighth, Ali gave away both rounds by tapping Frazier with light jabs and clowning with the crowd. In his corner, Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, admonished him, "Stop playing around. "

But Ali was dazzling in the ninth. With the crowd up on its feet and roaring, Ali pounded Frazier with a volley of right and left hands, then straightened him up with a quartet of flush hooks. Frazier found his range again in the 10th and 11th, but Ali came back in the 12th and was back on his toes in the 13th and 14th. Going into the 15th round of what at that point was a very close affair, Frazier, his face a mass of bumps, came out and hammered Ali with a left hook that sent him flying onto his back. Somehow, Ali climbed back on his feet and finished the round, but Frazier had won a unanimous decision: 8-6-1, 9-6 and 11-4. It was the first loss by Ali in 32 fights.

"I remember when I heard the bell, " Frazier says now. "I looked at Ali and said, 'Yeah, I kicked your [bleep]. '"

JAN. 28, 1974

Emotions before Al-Frazier II only escalated. When Ali and Frazier appeared together on Dick Cavett's talk show, Frazier kept silent as Ali repeatedly called him "ignorant. " Skeptical of allowing Joe to appear with Ali again, Eddie Futch, elevated to chief second after Durham had passed away, had been assured by Howard Cosell that he would sit between the two to prevent any angry flare-ups.

So where did Ali and Frazier sit?

Side by side.

The trouble started when Frazier mentioned that Ali had gone to the hospital after their first fight with a swollen jaw.

"I went to the hospital for 10 minutes," Ali said. "You went for a month. "

"I was resting," Frazier told him.

"That shows how dumb you are," Ali said. "See how ignorant you are? "

Frazier had had enough. He shot to his feet and told Ali, "Stand up. " The two grabbed each other in wrestling holds and had to be separated.

Rumors had circulated after the first fight that Frazier in fact had died in the hospital. While Ali had X-rays done on his jaw, Frazier came back to Philadelphia and quietly was admitted to St. Luke's Hospital. There, Dr. James Giuffe had him lie on a bed of ice for 24 hours. Word was that Frazier had very high blood pressure and a kidney inflection. Joe was in a deep sleep at one point as four doctors lingered over his bed. When he finally was stabilized, one of the doctors sighed and said, "It was close. " Frazier remained in the hospital for three weeks.

Ali-Frazier II had been proposed for 1972, but was held up when Frazier would not agree to an even split of the purse. He reportedly said, "I would burn in hell before I ever gave him an even split. " Instead, Frazier gave Olympic heavyweight champion George Foreman a shot at his title in January 1973, and was clubbed to the floor six times in the first two rounds. Ali was beaten two months later by former Marine Ken Norton, and had his jaw broken. While Ali-Frazier II would not have the appeal of the first fight, if only because no title was at stake and both fighters had been defeated since their first meeting, it attracted the usual crowd of fashionably attired stars and starlets at Madison Square Garden.

Referee Tony Perez was appointed to work Ali-Frazier II, and it would prove to be a poor choice for both fighters. When Ali drove Joe back onto his heels and into the ropes in the second round, Perez, thinking he had heard the bell, stepped in and interrupted the action, which provided Frazier with an opportunity to recover. Frazier was unable to get himself going through the early rounds, in part because Perez was allowing Ali to hold his opponent by the neck. An angry Futch told Perez, "You gotta stop this. " But Ali continued to hold on, even as Frazier attempted to wheel out his big guns in the eighth and ninth. By virtue of his ring generalship, Ali was awarded the 12-round decision.

Futch only grew angrier when he reviewed the film. By his careful count, Ali had held Joe 133 times.

Frazier characterizes the fight today as a "mugging. "

"I still feel I won that fight, if you look closely at the punches thrown and the ones that were landed," he says. "The referee was supposed to break us, but he just let Ali keep holding on. It was a mug job. "

OCT. 1, 1975

Up at his tranquil training camp in Deer Lake, Pa., before their third meeting, "The Thrilla in Manila," Ali stood in the ring and looked down at the crowd that had assembled for his workout.

"Who am I?" he asked.

"'The Greatest! ' 'The Greatest!'" cried Bundini Brown, a member of his entourage.

"Joe Frazier should give his face to the Wildlife Fund," Ali said. "He's so ugly, blind men go the other way. Ugly! Ugly! Ugly! He not only looks bad, you can smell him in another country! "

Ali held his nose.

"What will the people of Manila think? " Ali continued. "That black brothers are animals. Ignorant. Stupid. Ugly and smelly. "

Why did Ali abuse Frazier in this manner?

He once said it was just a ploy to drum up publicity.

Frazier always rejected that explanation. "Unnecessary," he says. "Why would he have to do that when we both had guarantees? "

Did Ali do it to get a competitive edge on Joe?

Frazier shrugs.

"You would have to ask him," says Frazier, whose son, Marvis, came under abuse from schoolmates because of the vitriol that Ali was spewing. "All I know is this: The noisier he got, the meaner I got. "

On a tropically hot October day in the Philippines, they met in front of a crowd of 28,000 at the Araneta Colosseum. With President Ferdinand Marcos and First Lady Imelda looking on from their box, Ali once again looked to dispose of Joe early, and appeared close to flooring Frazier in the first and again in the second. Again, Frazier did not slip into gear until the sixth, when he began shoveling hooks into Ali with his old ferocity. Frazier continued to pour it on in the seventh, eighth and ninth, but Ali withstood the barrage of punches. "What is keeping this [bleep] fool up? " Frazier asked as he sat down in his corner at the end of the ninth.

Frazier came out for the 10th round and continued the assault. Ali looked thoroughly beaten as he returned to his corner at the end of the 10th. While a tearful Brown shouted in his ear, "Go down to the well once more! The world needs ya, champ! " Ali sat on his stool with his head bowed, his eyes weighty with exhaustion. Ali later would say that he came close to quitting at that point, but he somehow found the strength to come out for the 11th. Joe trapped Ali in a corner and hammered him with blows to the face in that round, but in the 12th, Ali suddenly found a second wind (or was it a third or fourth?). Working again in the center of the ring, Ali began catching Joe with long lead right hands. With his face swelling up, Frazier returned to his corner and said he could not pick up the right.

The rejuvenated Ali continued firing away. Joe winced as his bloody mouthpiece flew seven rows into the crowd in the 13th. With his power greatly diminished, Frazier came out for the 14th and caught nine straight right hands to his left eye, 30 or so in the round. As referee Carlos Padilla guided Frazier back to his corner at the end of the round, Futch found himself faced with a dilemma. Remembering the 15th round in the first fight at the Garden, Futch wondered if Ali had another round in him. Then he looked again at Joe, whose eye was a swollen and purple slit. Futch signaled for the referee to stop it.

"No, no, no! " Joe implored.

"Sit down, son," Futch said. "No one will forget what you did here today. "

It was rumored for a long time that Frazier could not bring himself to forgive Futch for stopping the fight. While in one breath Frazier says Futch acted properly and that Durham "would have done the same thing," he also believes he would have won easily if he had been allowed to continue.

"How many rounds did you give Ali? " Frazier asks.

"Five, maybe six," he is told.

"Man, you need your glasses cleaned," Frazier replies with a laugh. "The way I see it, he won the fourth and the 14th. I had him whipped. "


Joe Frazier says he will leave it to others to judge Ali as a man, and one did a few years ago quite harshly. In a commentary written in 1997, syndicated political columnist R. Emmett Tyrell Jr. observed: "Truth be known, [Ali] was a tremendous fighter but a lousy champion. He demeaned his opponents. He introduced racial prejudice where it had no place. He even introduced it in his fights with a far greater champion, which is to say a far greater man, Joe Frazier. . .To depict [Frazier] as a figure in a racial contest was utterly false. "

Frazier was through when he departed Manila (Ali was, too, essentially, even though he would win the title a third time, from Leon Spinks, in 1978. ) Though Joe had a few more fights, he soon drifted into retirement, during which he guided the career of Marvis and now works with other fighters up at the gym. There, he is surrounded by photographs from the old days, one of which shows Ali careening to his back in the 15th round of Ali- Frazier I.

Joe just shakes his head. "Why did he say the things he said? " Joe says. "Only he has the answer to that, and I would prefer not to comment on it. He just seemed to have a bad word for everybody. It was just foolishness. "

And Ali? What does he say?

"I'm sorry Joe Frazier is mad at me," he told author Thomas Hauser for his book, "Muhammad Ali: "His Life and Times. " "I'm sorry I hurt him. Joe Frazier is a good man, and I couldn't have done what I did without him, and he couldn't have done what he did without me. And if God ever calls me to a holy war, I want Joe Frazier fighting beside me. "

And so the grudge would appear to be over. While Frazier says he had to "swallow some razor blades" because of Ali, that some of what "The Butterfly" said "cut me up inside," he is looking forward to the day when their two daughters, both up-and- coming professional boxers, square off in the ring. Frazier says the time has come for both of them to move on and get on with life. But even as he says that, he cannot help but add, "We both know who came out the winner.

"Look at him.

"Now look at me."