The sporting world has known many vitriolic feuds down the decades, but surely no two rivals have hated one another with quite so much venom as Muhammad Ali and Smokin’ Joe Frazier, who died this week.
In boxing terms they were perfectly matched, but when it came to verbal sparring the “Louisville Lip” could reduce Frazier to stammering incoherence – and his cruellest onslaughts came on the eve of the last of their three epic fights, the so-called Thrilla In Manila.
During a joint TV interview in the Philippines capital, Ali ridiculed his poorly educated opponent as an idiotic “Uncle Tom” who kow-towed to the white boxing establishment, remarks which so incensed Frazier that a brawl broke out in the studio.
But when they came face-to-face at a chaotic press conference, a few days later, Ali drew on his penchant for poetry to unleash an even more merciless tongue-lashing.
“It will be a chiller, a killer and a thriller when I get the gorilla in Manila,” he recited, his handsome features creased with a mocking smirk.
Then, reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a black rubber gorilla and began pummelling it. “This is the way Joe Frazier looks when you hit him,” he jibed.
“Joe is so ugly! His mother told me that when he was a little boy, every time he cried, the tears would stop, turn around, and go down the back of his head.”
The assembled media roared with laughter and waited for the glowering Frazier’s response. But, as usual, he was lost for words and could only grunt that he didn’t just aim to beat Ali, now, he intended to really hurt him.
“It’s his heart I want,” he mumbled, burning with fury.
In the ensuing battle, in October, 1975, the pair laid into one another with such ferocity that though Ali was nominally the winner – Frazier’s corner forcing him to retire in the 14th – both men really lost.
Frazier was so badly battered that he never won another fight, but consoled himself with the belief that the 440 bludgeoning punches he landed on Ali that night precipitated his later physical decline, which led to his suffering Parkinson’s Disease.
“Look at him now,” Frazier remarked callously, many years later, when Ali began to slur his speech and required a wheelchair.
“He’s damaged goods – God’s shut him up. He can’t talk no more because he was saying the wrong things. He was always making fun of me, telling me I’m a dummy.
“Tell me now – him or me, which one talks worse? He’s finished and I’m still here.”
His cruel words were a measure of the impotence he had felt when Ali, with his superior intellect, had delighted in tormenting him.
So what lay behind their deep animosity? After all, this was the “Black Power” era in the US, when African-Americans were struggling for equality after years of segregation, and they ought to have had much in common.
Both were from the South, where racism was most virulent (Ali was raised in Kentucky, Frazier in South Carolina) and both were brilliant athletes who took up boxing because it offered an opportunity to break free of their social and financial shackles.
Ironically, though, it was the contrasting manner with which they chose to confront racial prejudice that was at the heart of their bitter dispute.
Taciturn by nature, Frazier, who left school at 13 to work on his family’s smallholding, was not interested in involving himself in the political issues of the day, preferring to keep his head down and maintain a quiet but steely dignity in the face of prejudice.
The youngest of his father’s reputed 26 children, he was encouraged to box by his uncle Israel and would spend hours punching a sack filled with corn cobs.
After he moved to Philadelphia and found work in a slaughterhouse, he honed his trademark left-hook by slugging sides of beef and got fit by running up and down the local museum steps – training methods copied in the Rocky films.
Like Ali, he won an Olympic gold medal in boxing before turning professional. However, Frazier’s medal took pride of place in his ghetto apartment; Ali – or Cassius Clay, as he was still called then – threw his in the Ohio River, in protest at being refused service in a whites-only restaurant.
By the mid-1960s, Frazier was still an upcoming boxing journeyman. Ali was not only the world heavyweight champion but – by dint of his graceful boxing style, good looks, rapier wit and outrageous immodesty the most famous sportsman on earth – he had become a fulcrum of the Black Power struggle.
He had adopted an Islamic name and took part in civil rights marches and, in April 1967, he famously refused induction into the US Army because he opposed the Vietnam War. Then aged 25 and at his supreme peak, he was stripped of his title, and for three years his plight divided public opinion like no other issue of the day.
In another of the many ironies behind this story, Frazier, two years his junior, was among those who admired him.
Indeed, by 1970, when he had won the world title, Frazier lobbied the boxing authorities to permit Ali to box again – even at the risk of losing his crown to a man many still regarded as “The Greatest”.
Frazier later recalled how he also showed kindness to Ali, then struggling to eke out a living by lecturing college students about the iniquities of white imperialism, by giving him a lift in his Cadillac, from Philadelphia to New York.
His reward came when he dropped Ali at his destination on Broadway. “That Joe Frazier’s no world champion! He ain’t nothing but a bum!” he began shouting in the street. “I’m gonna whup him, you’ll see.”
Frazier, not for the last time, was astonished by his behaviour, and quietly vowed to take vengeance in the only place where he could match Ali: the ring.
But this was merely Ali’s opening salvo, and when – determined to prove that he was the rightful champion – Frazier agreed to fight the newly returned Ali at Madison Square Garden in March, his insults grew ever more wounding.
Frazier was “dumb”, “ugly”, “stupid”, a supine patsy to the white boxing authorities, Ali crowed (conveniently forgetting that Frazier’s training and corner team were black while his were largely white).
His clear implication was that, when he viewed Smokin’ Joe – who never rocked the boat – he saw all that was worst in a black man and he wanted to destroy that with words as well as fists.
Why did he feel the need to hammer home his feelings with such gratuitous nastiness when, outside the ring at least, he was so clearly superior to the inarticulate, squat, saturnine Frazier? It is a question that perplexes onlookers to this day.
As historian Randy Roberts says: “One of the many paradoxes about Ali is that he embraced an ideology that disparaged white people, yet he was never cruel to white people – only blacks.” And Frazier, he adds, was treated most cruelly of all.
In that unforgettable first fight, Frazier took his revenge, beating Ali on points to retain his crown before a star-studded audience which included Frank Sinatra, who was there to take photographs for Life magazine, and Burt Lancaster, who acted as a TV commentator.
But Ali won the rematch two years later, and then proved his superiority in Manila, in what many still consider to have been the best – and most brutal – boxing match of all time. “That was the closest I’ve come to dying,” Ali said afterwards.
The great charmer also emerged victorious in the PR war by summoning Frazier’s son, Marvis, to his dressing room after the fight and telling him he hadn’t meant a word of what he had said about his father.
But Ali never apologised directly to Frazier and it took him a further quarter of a century to say in public he was sorry.
“I said a lot of things in the heat of the moment that I shouldn’t have said and called him names I shouldn’t have called him,” he told the New York Times in 2001. “It was all meant to promote the fight.”
With palpable reluctance, Frazier said he accepted Ali’s contrition, but one wonders whether the wounds ever really healed. How could they, when they ran so deep?
Frazier’s former business manager, Bob Watson, recalls how the boxer once drove off without him, leaving him to walk many miles home, simply because he had described Ali as a great fighter.
“When you work for me you don’t say good things about Ali,” Frazier fumed later.
Frazier explained his feelings by saying Ali had robbed him of the gift he most prized – the American public’s respect. The cruelly inaccurate “Uncle Tom” had stuck with him, tarnishing his legacy.
“You don’t do to a man what Ali did to Joe,” says Bob Watson. “People only saw one Joe, the one created by Ali. If you’re a man, that’s going to get you in a big way.”
When his boxing career ended, Frazier’s demise continued. His private life was chaotic and, thanks to the unfavourable image Ali bestowed on him, he never made a large amount of money from endorsements, as did other boxers of his era, such as George Foreman with his non-stick grills.
Frazier lived out his years in an apartment above the Philadelphia gym where he learned his craft.
When journalists beat a path to his door to remember those three incredible fights, he promised to win the final round by living to a ripe old age and outlasting his nemesis.
Sadly, but predictably, Ali has beaten him again. – Daily Mail