“I shall not look upon his like again,” Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 2.
A quote from Shakespeare may seem an odd way to summarise the career of Smokin’ Joe Frazier, the former heavyweight champion boxer who died this week aged 67 from liver cancer.
What made Joe Frazier so great was his link to the men he fought – George Foreman and Muhammad Ali – and the significance their bouts had. We would all do well to remember that we are defined by those with whom we compete – be they boxer, banker or politician.
For an era in boxing to produce greatness it requires at least three contenders who are willing to fight each other. Why not just two? A beats B. B beats C. So when A fights C, surely it is a foregone conclusion? C may have lost to B, but may still have the means of defeating A in an upset that shocks the world.
So it was with Frazier, Foreman and Ali. Frazier won his title after Ali was stripped of it for refusing to be drafted during the Vietnam war. But he beat Ali on his comeback in 1971. It was Ali’s first defeat, floored in the 15th round by Frazier’s speciality – a left hook. Frazier went on to lose to Foreman in 1973. Foreman then fought Ali in the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire in 1974, where Ali caused a great upset with his “rope-a-dope” tactics and reclaimed the crown.
Other boxers have since managed to engineer this dramatic tension in which several contenders fought an epic series of fights, most notably between middleweights Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy “The Hitman” Hearns, Roberto Duran and “Marvellous” Marvin Hagler in the 1980s. But such encounters between the best boxers are now a rarity. Television coverage of sporting events and the associated money it brings with it, is the cause. If a channel advances tens of millions to a boxer for a series of fights, it is not going to risk its investment by putting him in against the best contender. So we are still awaiting the much-heralded encounter between Floyd Mayweather Jr and Manny Pacquiao, the two best welterweights in the world. This is one of the reasons for the proliferation of sanctioning bodies, each handing out their own version of titles. If the best boxers in the world are not going to fight for the world title, maybe they can all get a version of the title. When Frazier fought Ali and Foreman, there was only one world champ.
Many of the sportsmen who now have agents chiselling out money from television networks and sponsors will find out, as Frazier did, that making money is not the hard bit – holding on to it is. Like so many boxers before him, Frazier died penniless, living above a boxing gym in the Philadelphia ghetto. How many former star bankers, traders and hedge fund managers will prosper or suffer at the hands of nature’s redistribution mechanism?
Even though there have been other periods when a group of three or so world-class contenders fought for the title, the clashes between Ali, Frazier and Foreman transcended their sport. They occurred against the backdrop of the upheaval over segregation in the US and unrest about the Vietnam war. This gave a meaning to Ali’s fights beyond boxing. The two issues came together in Ali’s explanation for why he had refused drafting: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. They never called me nigger.”
The combination of these factors meant that their fights were more significant than any before or since. They had names: The Fight of the Century (Frazier v Ali, 1971), The Rumble in the Jungle (Foreman v Ali, 1974), The Thrilla in Manila, (Ali v Frazier, 1975). Ali was the most recognised person on the planet. In an age before cable and satellite, if you wanted to watch the fight you either went to it or to a cinema to watch it on closed-circuit TV. It is hard to see boxing ever having such popular appeal again, and even harder to see athletes now having such stature that they transcend their sport.
Frazier was a man who, when asked by his cornerman Eddie Futch during the Thrilla in Manila whether he could still see Ali (he was partly blind in one eye and the other eye had been closed by Ali’s punches), said: “No, but I can still feel him.” This exemplified Frazier’s style: always going forward and close enough to feel his opponent. Boxers did not have to seek out Frazier in the ring. He was a true champion, who would never have failed to rise from his stool to fight one more round. But as a boxing saying goes: “You need brave fighters, not brave cornermen.” A cornerman’s duty is to take care of his fighter and Futch did so, at the price of Frazier never forgiving him for stopping the fight.
It is, perhaps, fitting to leave the last word on Frazier to a man who fought him, Foreman: “I wanted to be champ of the world but I kept hoping something would happen to Frazier. I didn’t want to fight him. The bell rung and he threw that left hook that barely missed me. It sounded like a bullet and I got nervous. I knocked him down and I said, he’s gonna kill me now. I knocked him down again and said, oh, he’s mad now. I knocked him down again. I kept knocking him down and he kept getting up. After six times I was awarded the championship of the world. He was still trying to get me when they stopped the fight.”
We may never see his like again, and the world is poorer for it.
to view the article on FT.com