PHILADELPHIA — Joe Frazier needed the night of his career to knock down “The Greatest.”
Frazier, a Beaufort, S.C., native, knocked down Muhammad Ali in the 15th round and became the first man to beat him in the Fight of the Century at Madison Square Garden in March 1971, the first in a trilogy of bouts that have gone down as boxing’s most fabled fights.
“That was the greatest thing that ever happened in my life,” Frazier said.
The relentless, undersized heavyweight ruled the division as champion, then spent a lifetime trying to fight his way out of Ali’s shadow.
Frazier, who died Monday night after a brief battle with liver cancer at the age of 67, forever will be associated with Ali. No one in boxing ever would dream of anointing Ali as The Greatest unless he, too, was linked to Smokin’ Joe.
“I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration,” Ali said in a statement. “My sympathy goes out to his family and loved ones.”
They fought three times, twice in the heart of New York City and once in the morning in a steamy arena in the Thrilla in Manila, the Philippines. They went 41 rounds together. Neither gave an inch and both gave it their all.
In their last fight in Manila in 1975, they traded punches with a fervor that seemed unimaginable among heavyweights. Frazier gave almost as good as he got for 14 rounds, then had to be held back by trainer Eddie Futch as he tried to go out for the final round, unable to see.
“Closest thing to dying that I know of,” Ali said afterward.
Ali was as merciless with Frazier out of the ring as he was inside it. He called him a gorilla and mocked him as an Uncle Tom.
But he respected him as a fighter, especially after Frazier won a decision to defend his heavyweight title against the then-unbeaten Ali in a fight that was so big Frank Sinatra was shooting pictures at ringside and both fighters earned an astonishing $2.5 million.
Bob Arum, who once promoted Ali, said he was saddened by Frazier’s passing.
“He was such an inspirational guy. A decent guy. A man of his word,” Arum said. “I’m torn up by Joe dying at this relatively young age. I can’t say enough about Joe.”
Frazier’s death was announced in a statement by his family, who asked to be able to grieve privately and said they would announce “our father’s homecoming celebration” as soon as possible.
Frazier was small for a heavyweight, weighing just 205 pounds when he won the title by stopping Jimmy Ellis in the fifth round of their 1970 fight at Madison Square Garden. But he fought every minute of every round going forward behind a vicious left hook, and there were few fighters who could withstand his constant pressure.
His reign as heavyweight champion lasted only four fights — including the win over Ali — before he ran into an even more fearsome slugger than himself. George Foreman responded to Frazier’s constant attack by dropping him three times in the first round and three more in the second before their 1973 fight in Jamaica was waved to a close and the world had a new heavyweight champion.
Two fights later, Frazier met Ali in a rematch of their first fight and Ali won a 12-round decision. There had to be a third fight, though, and what a fight it was. With Ali’s heavyweight title at stake, the two met in Manila in a fight that long will be seared in boxing history.
Frazier went after Ali round after round, landing his left hook with regularity as he made Ali backpedal around the ring. But Ali responded with left jabs and right hands that found their mark again and again. Even the intense heat inside the arena couldn’t stop the two as they fought every minute of every round with neither willing to concede the other one second of the round.
“They told me Joe Frazier was through,” Ali told Frazier at one point during the fight.
“They lied,” Frazier said, before hitting Ali with a left hook.
Finally, though, Frazier simply couldn’t see and Futch would not let him go out for the 15th round. Ali won the fight while on his stool, exhausted and contemplating himself whether to go on.
“It was unworldly what we had just seen,” Arum said.