In their classic trilogy, boxing icon of the 1960s and 70s Smokin’ Joe Frazier battled the legendary heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali for 41 rounds. Frazier and Ali were not only strong punchers but they were also known to be quicker than most heavyweights and landed more punches during a fight. Frazier and Ali went through a super human ordeal for all the two hours and three minutes of their three fights.
Their first encounter was held on March 8, 1971 at the Madison Square Garden in New York City. Dubbed as the Fight of the Century, it was also called the Battle of the Undefeated Champions. Ali didn’t lose his heavyweight title in the ring. He was stripped of his license to fight for not joining the Vietnam draft. Joe Frazier emerged the winner of the elimination process that determined Ali’s successor.
Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali went all of 15 rounds. In the 15th round, Frazier connected with his lethal left hook and floored Ali — the only knockdown of the fight. That knockdown won for Smokin’ Joe a split decision verdict.
Just as they were both undefeated champions when they first fought, Frazier and Ali were already ex-champions by the time they boxed again on January 28, 1974, also in Madison Square Garden. In their second encounter, there were no knockdowns. Being a non-title fight, the second Frazier-Ali encounter was set for only 12 rounds. The fight went the distance. Ali won via a decision and earned the right to fight heavyweight champ George Foreman.
Foreman had earlier dethroned Joe Frazier on January 22, 1973 in Jamaica in what is perhaps the biggest humiliation of Smokin’ Joe’s boxing career. In less than two rounds, Frazier went down six times from the power punches of Foreman before the fight was finally stopped. With a lesser boxer, the referee would have stopped the fight after the third knockdown. Frazier and Foreman were the 1964 and the 1968 Olympic heavyweight boxing champions, respectively.
Then Ali dethroned Foreman on October 30, 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire — in a manner that shocked the boxing world. Having overwhelmed and manhandled Frazier, the very first fighter to defeat Ali, Foreman was a heavy favorite. Ali used his wits and cunning for seven rounds of the fight, avoiding slugging it out with Foreman and demonstrating the rope-a-dope tactic, which was to lean back on the ropes and let the opponent tire. Ali picked the right moment in the eighth round to knockout the tired and frustrated Foreman. Foreman was never the same again after that loss to Ali.
With Ali back as the heavyweight champion of the world, the stage was set for the third and the greatest of the Frazier-Ali trilogy — the “Thrilla in Manila” it was dubbed. It was held at the Araneta Coliseum on October 1, 1975. The two boxing Hall of Famers battled for 14 of just about the most punishing rounds in boxing history. Sheer pride, and perhaps hate, kept Frazier and Ali on their feet and punching.
By the end of the 14th round, Ali wanted to quit. It was his trainer Angelo Dundee who forced him to continue. Frazier had no plan to quit but Eddie Futch, his trainer, made the decision and threw in the towel. What an irony that the last round of the two great champions was settled not by the combatants but by their handlers, and where the fighter who wanted to quit won.
Joe deeply resented the verbal abuse that he received from Ali in their three encounters. Ali had called Joe an ugly gorilla and an “Uncle Tom” — an insult more than a joke. Joe never forgave Ali for the insults.
Ali applied these psychological tactics on his opponents — the more dangerous the opponent, the more severe the trash talking. When Ali (then still called Cassius Clay before he converted to Islam and changed his name as well) fought heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, he also taunted Liston and called him a black bear. Sonny Liston was a fighter to be feared because he rarely needed more than four rounds to knockout his opponents.
Ali’s controversies and trash talking created a polarization among boxing fight fans. Some watched an Ali fight to see him humiliated while the others watched to cheer for him. This heightened public interest.
One of the best tributes ever paid to Joe Frazier came from Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam. He wrote: “Technically the loser of two of the three fights, he (Frazier) seems not to understand that they ennobled him as much as they did Ali.” Halberstam added “that the only way we know of Ali’s greatness is because of Frazier’s equivalent greatness, that in the end there was no real difference between the two of them as fighters, and when sports fans and historians think back, they will think of the fights as classics, with no identifiable winner or loser. These are men who, like it or not, have become prisoners of each other and those three nights.”
Smokin’ Joe Frazier had attained greatness during a boxing era when titans like Ali and Foreman were around and at their peak.
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