Ali became the liberals’ favourite, but let’s not forget Smokin’ Joe

Opinion: Frazier was discarded from the communal memory after Manila defeat

It is a measure of Muhammad Ali’s celebrity status that this week’s 50th anniversary of one of his fights should have prompted a flurry of feature articles and radio reminiscence. Usually, you have to die to qualify for coverage like that.

On the other hand, dying is no guarantee. Who remembers Joe Frazier dying?

Smokin' Joe lost two out of three fights with Ali – although the verdict in one of these was close on criminal. The most respected American boxing writer of the time, Bob Fiske of Ring magazine, described Ali's points decision in the second fight in 1974 as "positively perverse".

There was no storm of outrage about it. Most had wanted Ali to win. By now he was the apple of liberal America's eye. By the time of the Thrilla in Manila the following year, Frazier had even fewer friends, while Ali had become perhaps the most popular person in the world. From then until his death in November 2011, Frazier was a marginalised figure.


Ali's other major rivals, George Foreman and Larry Holmes, remained popular celebrities and comfortably off while Frazier lived his last years alone in a one-bedroom apartment above a gym in the same run-down area of Philadelphia where he had spent his teenage years and where, until close to the end, he helped to train young fighters.

He was by no means a derelict and showed no sign of self-pity. But he had lost virtually all of his earnings in land deals arranged by sharp lawyers and advisers and lived in frugal comfort.

No gimmicks, no frills
Frazier had been born in South Carolina in 1944, the second-youngest of 11 children of sharecropper parents. His father ran a moonshine still and farmed marijuana. The family moved to Philadelphia when Joe was 12. He left school the next year, did a series of unskilled jobs, including a stint in a slaughterhouse, joined a local boxing club, made a name in the state and then nationally, won heavyweight Olympic gold in Tokyo in 1964, and turned professional upon returning home.

He dodged nobody, and nobody did him any favours. En route to a title shot, he took on everyone standing in his way – Jerry Quarry, Buster Mathis, Oscar Bonavena, Doug Jones, Eddie Machen, George Chuvalo. He had a crouching style not unlike Rocky Marciano's, no reverse gear, dogged, relentless, with an explosive left hook, no gimmicks, frills or fancy moves. In 1970 he stopped Jimmy Ellis in five and took the crown. In the same year, Ali's licence to fight was restored.

In 1967, Ali had been stripped of the title which he'd taken from Sonny Liston 50 years ago this week for refusing to fight in Vietnam. At that point, the American war against the Vietnamese was still popular. Ali was excoriated as a traitor. But the brutal truth was beginning to become apparent and anti-war sentiment was seeping towards the mainstream.

On his comeback, Ali beat Quarry and Bonavena to set up the showdown. At Madison Square Garden, in what is still reckoned “the fight of the century”, Frazier dropped Ali in the 15th to clinch a unanimous points verdict.

This was the moment when legend had decreed that Ali reclaim the title he’d been robbed of by the draft board, the courts and the war-mongering media. All the cool dudes of America and the brothers off the block had desperately wanted him to win. Smokin’ Joe had rained on their parade and they never forgave him.

Thrilla in Manila
The tide against war was surging more strongly when the pair fought again in the "perverse" encounter of 1974. The Thrilla came in October 1975, five months after the helicopters had clattered up and away from the roof of the Saigon embassy. It was becoming increasingly difficult to find anyone in America who'd publicly admit to having ever supported the war.

Some who had once wanted Ali flogged to within an inch were suddenly keen to be seen at his side. Or at least on his side. An ersatz act of expiation was called for. Muhammad Ali, black man as golden boy, was perfectly cast. His final defeat of Frazier in Manila, when the pair pounded one another with fists of stone for 14 rounds, made him a transcendent hero to the world. Frazier fought on for a time, but was already being discarded from the communal memory.

Also in 1975, Rocky was filmed in Philadelphia. The movie, giving white America a champ of its own at a dark hour, drew for one of its best-remembered scenes on Frazier's practice as an amateur of training at work by punching sides of meat in the refrigerated room at the slaughterhouse.

The most popular tourist spot in Philadelphia today is the plaza in front of the Arts Museum where the statue of Rocky Balboa stands, gloved fists defiantly raised to the heavens.

Rocky was a fictional character. Frazier was the real deal, and a great champion. But there’s no statue of him anywhere in Philadelphia. Every time Ali is remembered, and he should be, we should also remember Joe Frazier.