Joe Frazier, the former heavyweight boxing champion whose rivalry with Muhammed Ali riveted America, died last night at age 67. On Saturday, it was reported he had entered hospice care for liver cancer and, last night, his family issued a statement, "We The Family of the 1964 Olympic Boxing Heavyweight Gold Medalist, Former Heavyweight Boxing Champion and International Boxing Hall of Fame Member Smokin' Joe Frazier, regrets to inform you of his passing. He transitioned from this life as 'One of God's Men,' on the eve of November 7, 2011at his home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We thank you for your prayers for our Father and vast outpouring of love and support. Respectfully, we request time to grieve privately as a family. Our father's home going celebration will be announced as soon as possible. Thank you for your understanding."
Frazier's left hook was his "signature weapon," and the Philadelphia Inquirer explains, "He developed his powerful left as a young child, growing up without electricity or plumbing in rural Beaufort, S.C. His father had lost his left arm in a shooting over a mistress, and young Joe became his father's left arm" as his father worked with a cross saw... "After watching boxing on TV with his father, he filled a burlap sack with a brick, rags, corncobs, and moss, then hung it from a tree." He later worked at a Philadelphia slaughterhouse and used its meats as his punching bags, a detail used in the movie, Rocky (Frazier did have a cameo).
The NY Times's obituary noted Frazier's "crouching, relentless attack — his head low and bobbing, his broad, powerful shoulders hunched — as he bore down on them with an onslaught of withering jabs and crushing body blows, setting them up for his devastating left hook," and his legacy as Ali's foil (Frazier won "The Fight of the Century," a 15-round decision in 1971 at Madison Square Garden; Ali won the 12-round, non-title decision, "Ali-Frazier II," at the Garden in 1974; and Ali and Frazier battled in 1975's "Thrilla in Manila," which ended after Frazier didn't come out for the 15th round because he couldn't see):
...[H]is career was defined by his rivalry with Ali, who ridiculed him as a black man in the guise of a Great White Hope. Frazier detested him.
Ali vs. Frazier was a study in contrasts. Ali: tall and handsome, a wit given to spouting poetry, a magnetic figure who drew adulation and denigration alike, the one for his prowess and outsize personality, the other for his antiwar views and Black Power embrace of Islam. Frazier: a bull-like man of few words with a blue-collar image and a glowering visage who in so many ways could be on an equal footing with his rival only in the ring...
The Ali-Frazier battles played out at a time when the heavyweight boxing champion was far more celebrated than he is today, a figure who could stand alone in the spotlight a decade before an alphabet soup of boxing sanctioning bodies arose, making it difficult for the average fan to figure out just who held what title.
The rivalry was also given a political and social cast. Many viewed the Ali-Frazier matches as a snapshot of the struggles of the 1960s. Ali, an adherent of the Nation of Islam, came to represent rising black anger in America and opposition to the Vietnam War. Frazier voiced no political views, but he was nonetheless depicted, to his consternation, as the favorite of the establishment. Ali called him “ignorant,” likened him to a gorilla and said his black supporters were Uncle Toms.
Mailer wrote after "The Fight of the Century, "Frazier had become the white man’s fighter, Mr. Charley was rooting for Frazier, and that meant blacks were boycotting him in their heart," and said Frazier was "twice as black as Clay and half as handsome," with "the rugged decent life-worked face of a man who had labored in the pits all his life." Here are some excerpts of Mailer's writing about "The Fight" and you can see the HBO documentary about the 1971 fight via YouTube (part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4).
While Ali acknowledged that the "Thrilla" was the "Closest thing to dying that I know of" and that Frazier was the only opponent to throws retorts back at him, Frazier remained angry at him for decades for his cruelty outside the ring when promoting bouts. The AP reports, "[Frazier] felt Ali made fun of him by calling him names and said things that were not true just to get under his skin. Those feelings were only magnified as Ali went from being an icon in the ring to one of the most beloved people in the world."
After a trembling Ali it the Olympic torch in 1996 in Atlanta, Frazier was asked by a reporter what he thought about it.
"They should have thrown him in," Frazier responded.
He mellowed, though, in recent years, preferring to remember the good from his fights with Ali rather than the bad. Just before the 40th anniversary of his win over Ali earlier this year -- a day Frazier celebrated with parties in New York -- he said he no longer felt any bitterness toward Ali.
"I forgive him," Frazier said. "He's in a bad way."
He once told the NY Times, "Ali always said I would be nothing without him. But who would he have been without me?"