One of the things that has always fascinated me about the violent sport of boxing is the sweet nature of so many former boxers. Not all, of course. But some. Maybe it’s because they left much of their fury and hatred in the ring. There was a sweetness to the Joe Frazier I met. He was, at those moments, struggling financially and unable to let go of his justifiable anger at Muhammad Ali. He was also proud of the wars he fought and maybe a little bit hurt that some people didn’t remember him more often. Frazier was an Olympic Gold Medalist. Frazier was heavyweight champion of the world when that meant something. Frazier beat Ali in the first fight they fought, floored him in the 15th. They would, of course, fight again.
As a fighter, Frazier couldn’t handle George Foreman — there was just something Kryptonite about Big George and Frazier was knocked out both times they fought — but he matched up artfully with Ali, left hook against quick jab, earthquake body blows against searing right crosses, neither willing to concede to the others will. As a man, though, Frazier couldn’t handle Ali’s charisma, his jovial cruelty, him calling Frazier “Gorilla” before they fought in the rhyming Manilla. Their third fight, the Thrilla, was probably the greatest fight — or most horrifying, depending on your viewpoint — in the known history of boxing. Two men tore into each other without restraint, seemingly beyond the scope of human endurance. Frazier was almost dead but unwilling to cease and desist when, according to Mark Kram’s untouchable story, his trainer, Eddie Futch, stopped the fight with those most human of words: “Sit down, son. It’s all over.”
Frazier fought twice more after that, though he should’t have fought again. He was batted around by Foreman and then he fought someone named Floyd Cummings to a draw in Chicago when he was almost 38 by actual years, and his body was ancient and wrecked. And then he lived the rest of his life in relative anonymity, a victim of Where Are They Now. As remarkable as Kram’s live story was Bill Nack’s legendary piece called simply The Fight’s Over, Joe.
Yes Frazier was furious with Ali, and disappointed to be remembered as the lesser of two rivals. But, as I say, there was a sweetness to the man and when I got to sit down with him and talk about boxing he was funny and charming and wonderful. One thing I remember more than any other was his description of getting hit by Foreman. He said it was like getting hit by a truck going forward, and then hit by the same truck going backward.
And then he said: “But I’ll bet I made other people feel that way too.” And he did.