This is an edited version of a story that appeared in the Daily News on Sept. 12, 2000.
HISTORY will forever join them. No individual rivalry in sports ever surpassed the one that played between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. In their trilogy of bouts across 41 rounds of intense action, the gripping drama they produced inside the ring was driven by public animosity that simmered for years. Even as Frazier in later years professed to have let go of the grudge he had harbored toward Ali for the vile hate language he endured, he understood that he had been an integral part in how Ali would be elevated onto the world stage.
Frazier once said, "Ali would not be Ali unless I had come along."
Against a backdrop of race and politics, the three bouts paired two of the finest heavyweights in the annals of boxing. Frazier would look back on their final encounter in Manila and wonder how he would have been looked upon if he had won that day, if only he could have come out for the 15th round. But as even he would come to accept, history cannot be rewritten, only appreciated for what it bestowed upon us: Three fights for the ages.
March 8, 1971 Madison Square Garden
On the eve of what had been billed as "The Fight of the Century," Joe Frazier received a phone call in his room at the Pierre Hotel. It was Ali, who had sequestered himself at the Garden.
"Joe Frazier, you ready?" Ali asked.
Frazier said he was.
"You know what?" Frazier continued. "You preach that you're one of God's men. Well, we'll see."
"You sure you're not scared, Joe Frazier?"
Frazier laughed and replied, "Scared of what I'm going to do to you?"
Tensions between Ali and Frazier had escalated in the weeks leading up to the bout. While Joe had stood by Ali during his exile from boxing for evading the draft, and had even petitioned President Nixon on his behalf, Frazier grew increasingly annoyed as Ali stepped up his verbal attack on him. In his dressing room before the bout, Joe knelt down 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]."
Stars poured into the Garden that evening - including Frank Sinatra, who shot photographs for Life. At the opening bell, Ali came out swinging. Giving away 4 1/2 inches in height and 9 1/2 pounds, Frazier appeared tentative as Ali easily won the first three rounds. Urged on by his trainer and manager, Yank 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 rounds. Willing to absorb two and three punches for each one that landed, Frazier plowed ahead as Ali leaned back on the ropes. Ali gave away the seventh and eighth rounds by tapping Frazier with light jabs and clowning to the crowd. Ali was admonished in his corner by his trainer, Angelo Dundee, who told him: "Stop playing around!"
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 appeared to some a very close affair, Frazier, his face swollen, came out and hammered Ali with a left hook that sent him flying onto his back. Ali climbed back on his feet and finished the round, but judges rewarded Frazier with a unanimous decision.
"I remember when I heard the bell," Frazier would say years later. "I looked at Ali and said, 'Yeah, I kicked your [bleep].' "
January 28, 1974 Madison Square Garden
Emotions continued to be pitched in the buildup to Ali-Frazier II, as Ali endlessly taunted Frazier by calling him "ignorant." Skeptical of allowing Joe to appear with Ali with Howard Cosell on ABC, Eddie Futch, elevated to chief second when Durham died, only agreed to the interview when Cosell assured him he would sit between the two to prevent any angry flare-ups.
But Cosell seated them side-by-side and trouble erupted when Joe pointed out that in 1971 he had hospitalized Ali with a swollen jaw.
"I went to the hospital for 10 minutes," Ali replied. "You went for a month."
"I was resting," said Frazier, who had spent 3 weeks in a Philadelphia hospital with high blood pressure and a kidney infection and at one point had been rumored "near death."
"That shows how dumb you are," Ali fired back. "See how ignorant you are?"
Frazier shot up out of his chair and told Ali, "Stand up." The two grabbed each other in wrestling holds and had to be separated.
Ali-Frazier II had been proposed for 1972, but was held up when Frazier would not agree to an even split of the purse. Reportedly, Joe said, "I would burn in hell before I gave him an even split." By 1974, Frazier had relinquished his championship to George Foreman, and Ali had his jaw broken in an upset at the hands of former Marine Ken Norton. No title was on the line in Ali-Frazier II, but once again a crowd of fashionably attired stars showed up at the Garden.
Appointed to work the 12-round bout was referee Tony Perez, who did not have one of his better evenings. When Ali drove Frazier back onto his heels and into the ropes in the second round, Perez, thinking he 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 Ali held onto him by the back of the neck. An angry Futch told Perez, "You gotta stop this!" But Ali continued to hold on, withstood a rally by Frazier in the eighth and ninth, and walked off with a decision.
Futch reviewed the film and said that Ali had held Joe 133 times.
Frazier characterized the bout years later as a "mugging."
"I still feel I won that fight, if you look closely at the punches thrown and the ones that were landed," Frazier would say. "The referee was supposed to break us, but he just let Ali keep holding on. It was a mug job."
October 1, 1975 Quezon City, Philippines
At his training camp in Deer Lake, Pa., before Ali-Frazier III - or as it will be forever known, "The Thrilla in Manila" - Ali stood in the ring and looked down at the crowd that had assembled for his workout.
"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 in Manila think?" Ali continued. "That black brothers are animals. Ignorant. Stupid. Ugly and smelly."
Why had Ali abused Frazier with such vitriol? Frazier discounted the explanation Ali would give years later, that it had been part of the publicity campaign.
"Unnecessary," Frazier would say. "Why would we have to do that if we both had guarantees?"
So had Ali done it to gain some competitive edge?
Frazier shrugged and replied, "You would have to ask him. All I know is, the noisier he got, the meaner I got."
On a scorching day in the Philippines, a crowd of 28,000 showed up at the Araneta Coliseum, including president Ferdinand Marcos and First Lady Imelda. Ali once again looked to dispose of Frazier early, and appeared close to flooring him in the first and second rounds. 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 hung on. In his corner at the end of the ninth, Frazier asked, "What is keeping that fool up?"
By the end of the 10th, Ali looked thoroughly beaten. He sat on his stool with his head bowed in exhaustion. Ali would later say that he came close to quitting at that point, but he somehow found the strength to come out for the 11th. Frazier trapped Ali in the corner and hammered him with blows to the face in that round but Ali withstood it and began to rally in the 12th.
Working again in the center of the ring, he peppered Frazier with long right hands. Ali continued to fire away in the 13th. Frazier winced as his bloody mouthpiece flew into the seventh row. With his strength waning, Frazier labored out for the 14th and caught nine consecutive right hands to his swollen left eye, 30 or so in the round. Futch peered in at the eye as Frazier sat on his stool and signaled to referee Carlos Padilla to stop it.
"No, no, no!" Joe protested.
"Sit down, son," Futch told him. "No one will forget what you did here today."
At his gym in North Philadelphia one day, Frazier said, "I had him whipped."
For years, it was rumored that he could not bring himself to forgive Futch for denying him that 15th round in Manila. But seated at his office that day he conceded Futch acted properly and that Durham "would have done the same thing."
Frazier smiled. "Why did he say the things he did," he said. "Only he has the answer to that, and I would prefer not to comment on it. It was just foolishness."
Ali observed in his biography, "Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times:" "Joe Frazier is a good man . . . And if God ever calls me to a holy war, I want Joe Frazier fighting beside me."
And that grudge?
Frazier said it was time to move on and get on with life. But he added with a chuckle, "We both know who came out the winner."