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Cancer claims Frazier

Heavyweight champ was foil for rival Ali

By Dan Gelston and Tim Dahlberg
Associated Press / November 8, 2011

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PHILADELPHIA - He beat Muhammad Ali in the Fight of the Century, battled him nearly to the death in the Thrilla in Manila. Then Joe Frazier spent the rest of his life trying to fight his way out of Ali’s shadow.

That was one fight Frazier never could win.

He was once a heavyweight champion, and a great one at that. Ali would say as much after Frazier knocked him down in the 15th round at Madison Square Garden in March 1971 en route to becoming the first man to beat Ali.

But he bore the burden of being Ali’s foil, and he paid the price. Bitter for years about the taunts his former nemesis once threw his way, Frazier only in recent times came to terms with what happened in the past and said he had forgiven Ali for everything he said.

Frazier, who died last night after a brief battle with liver cancer at the age of 67, will forever be linked to Ali. But no one in boxing would ever dream of anointing Ali as The Greatest unless he, too, was linked to Smokin’ Joe.

“You can’t mention Ali without mentioning Joe Frazier,’’ said former AP boxing writer Ed Schuyler Jr. “He beat Ali, don’t forget that.’’

They fought three times, twice in the heart of New York City and once in the morning in a steamy arena in the Philippines. They went 41 rounds together, with neither giving an inch.

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 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 soon announce “our father’s homecoming celebration.’’

Frazier’s 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 dropped him three times in the first round and three more in the second before their 1973 fight in Jamaica was waved to a close.

Two fights later, he met Ali in a rematch of their first fight, only this time Ali won a 12-round decision, and later that year stopped George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire.

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 will long be seared in boxing history.

It was one of the greatest fights ever, but it took a toll. Frazier would fight only two more times, getting knocked out in a rematch with Foreman before coming back in 1981 for an ill advised fight with Jumbo Cummings.