Wynne Gray on sport
Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Final bell for man who beat the greatest

Joe Frazier in New Zealand in 2005 to promote Fight for Life. Photo / Richard Robinson
Joe Frazier in New Zealand in 2005 to promote Fight for Life. Photo / Richard Robinson

Everyone has their memories of Smokin' Joe Frazier. Those memories were revived yesterday as the man whose boxing rivalry with Muhammad Ali transfixed sports followers in the 1970s was felled by a blow for which he had no comeback.

Ali has struggled with Parkinson's Disease for some years, while Frazier's diagnosis of liver cancer came as recently as September. He died this week in Philadelphia, aged 67.

Frazier was a tick under six feet tall, but his crouching, weaving style made him look stockier. He pursued his opponents, hitting them with a barrage of blows as he looked to cut off their escape route before unfurling his brutal left hook.

For many, that left hook - the one that famously felled Ali in the 15th round of their first clash - remains the strongest memory.

Frazier and Ali despised each other, although Frazier had petitioned President Richard Nixon to reinstate Ali's right to box after he refused to be inducted into the military for the Vietnam War in 1967.

Eventually the pair had three epic meetings.

The stately, smooth-punching, glib-talking Ali drew fans with his style and confidence, but shed many others because of his anti-war stance and devotion to Islam.

Frazier was the antithesis, a furious package of power who scowled through his fights and spoke little after them. He left school at 13, and lacking Ali's way with words was angered by the way his opponent painted him as an "Uncle Tom", a black man used as a pawn by white society. For his part, Frazier continued to call his opponent "Cassius Clay", the name Ali had left behind with his conversion to Islam.

They met first at Madison Square Garden in 1971, when Frazier won a points decision for the heavyweight title in 15 furious rounds.

Three years later Ali reversed that in a 12-round, non-title scrap before the rivals squared up for the last time, the Thriller in Manila, in October 1975. Boxing historians list this fight high in their order of acclaim, a brutal bout which went right to the final round before an exhausted Frazier, unable to see, was stopped by his trainer from coming out of his corner.

Ali - who had himself been contemplating quitting rather than facing another brutal round - was later candid about "Closest thing to dying that I know of."

Frazier's other two defeats in his professional career came against George Foreman, while he drew his final fight against Floyd Cummings when he came out of retirement, five years after losing his last bout with Foreman.

Frazier's parents worked 4ha of cotton farm and his father Rubin made bootleg liquor to support the family in southern Carolina. One of his purchases was a television and Frazier was enthralled watching Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano, Willie Pep and Rocky Graziano work their way through bouts.

Frazier dealt to bullies at school, but lost a scrap with a hog on the family farm when he fell and damaged his left arm. It healed but Frazier was left with a permanently bowed arm, ready for his signature hook.

He broke his left thumb at the 1964 Olympics but won gold and turned pro a year later. Five years later, when the undefeated Ali had the heavyweight title taken from him, Frazier fought Jimmy Ellis and won on a TKO. He then defended his title against Bob Foster.

His second defence was dubbed the Fight of the Century, his first combat with Ali who had returned to the ring after a three-year absence. It was a meeting of two undefeated heavyweight champions.

Frazier won the contest on points but both men ended up in hospital. Ali went straight in to have his jaw mended while Frazier spent weeks recovering from the brutal scrap.

Eventually done with fighting, Frazier ran a gym until ill health forced him to quit.

Seven weeks ago, he was diagnosed with liver cancer then went into hospice care before he was floored for the final time yesterday.

- NZ Herald

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