He beat Muhammad Ali in the Fight of the Century, battled him nearly to the death in the Thrilla in Manila. Then Joe Frazier spent the rest of his life trying to fight his way out of Ali's shadow.
That was one fight Frazier could never win.
He was once a heavyweight champion, and a great one at that. Ali would say as much after Frazier knocked him down in the 15th round en route to becoming the first man to beat Ali at Madison Square Garden in March 1971.
But he bore the burden of being Ali's foil, and he paid the price. Bitter for years about the taunts his former nemesis once threw his way, Frazier only in recent times came to terms with what happened in the past and said he had forgiven Ali for everything he said.
Frazier, who died Monday night after a brief battle with liver cancer at the age of 67, will forever be linked to Ali. But no one in boxing would ever dream of anointing Ali as The Greatest unless he, too, was linked to Smokin' Joe.
I remember going to see the 1971 Ali-Frazier match with my father. It was Ali's first fight after the Supreme Court decision that allowed him to return to boxing. We saw it in a live closed circuit broadcast, at a neighborhood theater. Back in those days, "closed circuit" meant going to see it in a movie theater, not on HBO, and there were still neighborhood theaters. And there was more to this fight, of course, given the times and personalities, than simply the fight itself.
The fight itself became something of a symbol of the country. Leading up to the fight, Ali (who had denounced the Vietnam War) had refused induction into the U.S. Army in 1967, leading to him being stripped of his title and barred from fighting for three years. Ali became a symbol of the anti-establishment movement, while Frazier became a symbol of the conservative, pro-war movement. (In his autobiography, Frazier said that he didn't fight in the war because he was a father but that he would have fought if drafted because his country had been so good to him.)
Many boxing fans argued that Ali's speed and ability would blind Frazier, while others thought Frazier's superior punching power combined with Ali's long absence from the ring would give the advantage to Frazier. On the night of the fight, there were riots in many United States cities, including Chicago, where a whole theater was torn apart by angry attendees who had just learned they would not be able to watch the fight on closed-circuit television.
What a battle! Ali called it the "Fight of the Century," and so it was. I think I was hoarse for two days afterwards, following an evening of yelling for my hero, Ali, to win. (He didn't; it was Ali's first loss.) Tickets were $18 each, and my dad grumbled about how much they cost...more for show, I think, than anything else. It was one of those nights you still remember years later, as much for the company as for the event.
My thoughts and prayers are with the Frazier family.