Joe Frazier was one of the greatest boxers to ever step into the ring.
On Monday night, the former heavyweight champion and boxing icon died from liver cancer in a hospice in Philadelphia. He was 67.
But on the day when Frazier’s illness and impending death was made public, it seemed stories of his life were nearly matched in number by stories about his rival — Muhammad Ali.
■ Obituary: Boxing champion Joe Frazier dies at 67
That’s the way it’s always been with Frazier, and likely the way it always will be. Ali’s flair and brash style of fighting and public speaking dominated the sport during his run, and despite Frazier’s myriad accomplishments, it was often Ali who stole the headlines.
When Ali issued a statement on Monday, saying that he was “praying that (Frazier) is fighting now,” Ali’s name snuck to the front of headlines on stories detailing Frazier’s death. (Right now an Associated Press story titled “Muhammad Ali say’s he’ll remember old rival Joe Frazier with ‘respect and admiration’” is the highest-viewed Frazier story on washingtonpost.com)
When Smokin’ Joe became the first man to defeat Ali, the careers and lives of two of the century’s most dominant fighters became instantly intertwined.
They provided two more classic bouts — both won by Ali — and engaged in an often bitter war of words that lingered for decades. Ali once called Frazier an “Uncle Tom” and a “gorilla.” Meantime, it was Frazier who petitioned President Richard Nixon to get Ali’s boxing license reinstated after Ali famously refused induction into the army during the Vietnam War. And when Ali was stripped of his title in 1967, it was Frazier who boycotted the tournament to determine a new champion.
In recent years, the frosty relationship between the two former champions appeared to subside, and after receiving news of Frazier’s death late Monday night, Ali provided another short statement.
“The world has lost a great champion. I will always remember Joe with respect and adoration. My sympathy goes out to his family and loved ones.”
The only other man to defeat Frazier paid his respects via Twitter.
Frazier and Ali are destined to be linked forever, but Frazier should also be remembered in his own right for all that he accomplished and all that he was as a fighter, a champion and a man.
In 37 career fights, he scored 27 knockouts. He won Olympic gold in Tokyo in 1964 and lost only four times — twice each to Ali and Foreman. He was a blue-collar boxer who carried the personality of his home town — Philadelphia — with him every time he stepped into the ring. And yet, while he earned every word of praise he received, Frazier — in part due to his own straightforward personality — almost always played second-fiddle.
Another Philadelphia fighter who grew up watching Frazier shed more light on all that Smokin’ Joe was for the sport and his city.
“There’s no way in the world you should come to Philadelphia and not recognize who Joe Frazier is,” WBC light heavyweight champion Bernard Hopkins said. “It’s the perfect time to build the biggest statue in appreciation for all the heart and love he gave to Philadelphia. It’s just to say how we regret when it’s not there to touch and see. We didn’t realize we had a super special person amongst us that we all in a way took for granted. I said this when he was living, I say this now. That’s the only thing.”
More on Joe Frazier from The Washington Post:
Photo gallery: The life and career of heavyweight champion Joe Frazier
On Faith: Muhammad Ali prays for former rival
Photo gallery: 11 noteworthy deaths of 2011