“I hated Ali. God might not like me talking that way, but it's in my heart.”
Amidst the pantheon of famous sporting rivalries, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali still sit comfortably at the top of the very best. The pair encapsulated everything boxing can be when they met in the ring - elegance, beauty and brutality.
Today marks the 49th anniversary of ‘the Fight of the Century’ that Ali and Frazier shared at New York’s Madison Square Garden back in 1971 - a scrap that still sets the bar for any heavyweight showdown in terms of magnitude and meaning.
Crooner Frank Sinatra had to pick up a gig as LIFE magazine’s ringside photographer, whilst Hollywood’s favourite tough guy, three-time Academy Award winner Burt Lancaster, provided some colour commentary for the bout’s broadcast. This was no ordinary boxing match and the stars of yesteryear were forced to think outside the box just to get close enough to the action.
Ali, fighting for a third time since his farcical three and a half year exile from boxing, was considered by many as the true champion, having had his title torn from him so unfairly for becoming a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and its subsequent draft.
"I will face machine-gun fire before denouncing Elijah Muhammad and the religion of Islam," he insisted. "I'm ready to die."
The history of the two fighter’s animosity towards one another is as complex as it was bloody and it goes far beyond the 44 rounds they shared across their three blockbuster bouts. Years before they’d become synonymous with each other, Frazier had actually fought in Ali’s corner in his fight against the US government and his bid to have his boxing licence reinstated.
“I went to see President Nixon at the White House. It wasn’t difficult to get a meeting because I was the heavyweight champion of the world,” he told The Guardian years later.
“So I came to Washington and walked around the garden with Nixon, his wife and daughter. I said: ‘I want you to give Ali his license back. I want to beat him up for you.’ Nixon said, ‘Sure, I’d like that.’ He knew what he was doing and so Ali got his license back.”
Frazier obviously had an ulterior motive for getting Ali back in the ring but he genuinely wanted to help his heavyweight rival and it makes it all the more tragic that he was repaid for his troubles with unwarranted cruelty from the man who aided him in his dire time of need.
By the time he was released from his boxing ostracism in 1970, Ali took aim at what he called a “paper champion,” apparently forgetting the support shown to him by Frazier in the years prior. Thus, the first meeting inside a squared circle between the two would be pencilled in for the following year.
In the build up to their first fight, lines were drawn immediately and sides were picked. Some viewed Ali as an American hero for his stance against the establishment (although this brought him just as many detractors) and, through no fault of his own, Frazier was seen as the exact opposite - the defender of the very people at the top who’d curtailed Ali’s glittering career.
It was because of this fictional divide that we are reminded of the uglier side to Ali. “Uncle Tom,” “white people’s champion” and “gorilla,” are just a few of the names Ali would pepper Frazier with ahead of the first fight and it’s two sequels - labels that, until his death in 2011, Frazier struggled to dislodge and ones that left him resentful of his famous rival until the bitter end.
On the night of their fateful first fight, it was Frazier who had the last laugh, clipping the wings of the butterfly and removing the sting of the bee - besting Ali across 15 rounds to win a unanimous decision. Ali, uncharacteristically bitter, refused to accept the decision initially and claimed the result was the “white man’s decision”.
By the time of the second and third fight, in 1974 and 1975 respectively, the social climate had cooled down considerably compared to the first fight and neither would bring the same hype and furore as it either - of course, hindsight is 20/20 and the third, ‘The Thrilla In Manilla,’ would go down in history as one of, if not the, greatest exhibition of pugilism ever.
Even retirement from the sport failed to ease the loathing towards each other. Frazier infamously said of Ali, after he iconically lit the torch at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, a rare public appearance since his Parkinson’s diagnosis a decade earlier:
“It would have been a good thing if he would have lit the torch and fallen in. If I had the chance, I would have pushed him in.”
Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali were two sides of the same coin in truth - Frazier was the Ying to Ali’s Yang, Frazier represented order, Ali represented chaos but both needed each other. Nearly half a century after their first bust-up, it’s impossible to think of one without the other close behind.
They recognised that, too. Upon hearing of Frazier’s final career loss, a courageous battle with liver cancer, Ali said: “The world has lost a great champion. I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration.”