On a summer day the year before he died, I sat with Smokin’ Joe Frazier at a big table in his Philadelphia apartment. He picked at a plate of grapes and thought about growing up in the 1950s. “We all wanted to be men quick, ‘so I can do whatever I want to do.’ That’s how we thought at the time. And then we got old and said, ‘Doggone, I’m getting old.’ You get too old and you think, How long have I got to live?” He grinned and shook his head. “We’re never satisfied. All we can think about is doing things that are crazy and trying to get away with them. I’m not sure if there’s a heaven or a hell. We have to find out for ourselves when we take our last breath.”
Joe Frazier took his last breath November 7, 2011 at the age of 67. He was heavyweight champion of the world and a presence on any list of all-time greats. He gave his title belt to ex-boxer Nelson Mandela and framed the thank-you note. He had 11 beloved children by several beautiful women, and enough grandchildren and great-grandchildren to fill the bleachers. He did a lot of good for some people and some good for a lot of people. He made friends and he kept them. He danced and sang every chance he got. Like any mortal, Frazier had regrets, grief, catastrophes and the occasional rage. But in general he was a happy man. He woke up every morning eager for what the day would bring.
On a sweltering night in Philadelphia’s city center, the natty gent with the panama hat and cane taps his way out of an apartment building. He nods to his doorman and tacks toward a gleaming Escalade. As he passes a bar, out of the door bursts a pack of lawyers, or maybe bankers or brokers, yelling, “It’s Smokin’ Joe.” The leader, a silverback in immaculate pinstripes, says, “I was at ringside when you beat Jerry Quarry.” The Armani-clad pack yips, “My dad worshipped you,” and “I’ve got all your fights on DVD.”
Frazier’s spine, bent by a car wreck a decade earlier and multiple surgeries since, straightens reflexively. The panama takes a rakish tilt; the cane becomes a swagger stick. Notebooks and bar mats and napkins reach toward him. Frazier grins and jokes and signs everything. The Escalade’s driver informs Frazier’s friends in the rear seats that they’ll be a little late for an event that night at which Smokin’ Joe is an honored guest. Frazier never turned his back on a fan. “You’ve got to respect the fans,” he would say.
Fighters are defined by their opponents. No boxer is considered great unless he has battled great foes. The three historic fights between Frazier and Muhammad Ali in the 1970s formed the most significant sports rivalry of the 20th century. Boxing was still a mainstream force. Major bouts were broadcast by the three national networks, and it was a golden age of heavyweight talent. But Frazier and Ali meant more than the sport.
Their collisions grew out of an era boiling in racial clashes, civil rights, Vietnam war protests and the explosion of free sex, psychedelic drugs and rock and roll. Ali and his handlers, from the black separatist sect known as the Nation of Islam, surfed the turmoil and used it.
In 1967 Ali was stripped of his world title and banned from boxing because he refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army. Ali’s stand won him a passionate following in the antiwar movement. The master showman presented himself as the martyred anti-establishment hero, a proud defender of his race and the only legitimate heavyweight champion. Ali earned a living by speaking on campuses and elsewhere, including at a Ku Klux Klan rally, where he was welcomed because of the Nation of Islam’s philosophy of racial separatism.
Frazier and his wife had five children by then, making him exempt from the draft. Though Frazier was a lifelong Baptist, he wasn’t bothered by Ali’s religion. The Frazier line was “He can pray to a hole in the ground for all I care.” Ali moved to Philadelphia during his exile. Frazier befriended him, cooperated with his publicity stunts and worked to restore his right to compete in the ring. Frazier also fought for and won the world titles Ali had lost. But he knew he would never be seen as the real champion until he fought Ali.
Granted his right to box again, Ali signed for a shot at Frazier’s title. He’d always joked about his opponents, but for Smokin’ Joe he threw verbal acid. Ali painted Frazier as an Uncle Tom, the white man’s champion, a betrayer of his people, an unworthy pretender to the heavyweight crown and stupid and ugly to boot. A lot of people believed Ali, which made life rough for the Frazier family. Joe Frazier felt betrayed. Many years later, Frazier’s oldest son, Marvis, commented, “Everybody said it was just Ali doing publicity. But you weren’t on the end of that publicity.”
The death threats came by phone and letter. Insults spouted from radios and televisions. Accusations erupted from the crowd jamming Frazier’s Philadelphia gym to watch him train. It was early 1971, still winter, and the 27-year-old Frazier was preparing to defend his title in what would eventually be labeled the greatest fight of the 20th century. But Frazier was already under siege.
His tires were slashed. His manager’s car was stolen. His dog was run over and killed. Each fighter would get a purse of $2.5 million, but Philadelphia police had to guard the Frazier family home night and day. Cops surrounded Frazier through the icy miles of his predawn roadwork. “I felt like a jailbird,” he said. “I worried about my family. But it didn’t keep me from doing my job.”
The fight was set for March 8, 1971. Every ticket to Madison Square Garden sold within hours. In closed-circuit theaters and on televisions around the globe more than 300 million people would watch it. Frank Sinatra arranged to photograph the fight for Life magazine so he could get a ringside seat. Actor Burt Lancaster did color commentary for the broadcast. Political and social ramifications aside, it was a battle between two great undefeated heavyweight champions in their prime. In stylistic terms alone it was natural magic—Frazier, the small but ferocious slugger, versus Ali, the tall, dancing boxer.
Their opposing physiques and styles reflected diametric personalities. Frazier was an old-school Spartan, an admirer of Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis and a staunch proponent of fair play. He was a blue-collar warrior. Ali was something else—a golden boy, a comic braggart whose rhetoric was scripted by the Nation of Islam. He had the grace and skill of Sugar Ray Robinson but took his theatrical cues from pro wrestling’s most flamboyant heel, Gorgeous George. People hated him or adored him. There was no in-between.