Nov 8, 2011, 1:51 AM EST
Close your eyes and imagine you’re fighting the heavyweight champion of the world.
Keep them closed. You have to pretend you’re fighting blind. You have to pretend that your fists could break a man’s ribs and that your face could break his hands. You have to pretend that with each passing second, the difference between your blood and your saliva is becoming increasingly negligible. You have to pretend that you’re only standing upright thanks to an impossible combination of will, instinct and insatiable hatred. You have to pretend you’ll never quit, even if it means sustaining legitimate neurological damage that will have profound impacts on the quality of the rest of your life. You have to pretend you’re more than just a man.
You have to pretend you’re a boxer. You have to pretend you’re Joe Fraizer.
“Smokin’ Joe” is no longer with us. News broke late Monday evening that the former champion and boxing hall of famer had succumbed to liver cancer and passed away at the age of sixty-seven.
Best known for his legendary three fight series with Muhammad Ali, it is absolutely impossible to consider Frazier’s legacy without invoking that of Ali. For better or for worse, whether they like it or not, they will forever remain linked in the annals of a history that is becoming sadly niche.
Perhaps it is fitting that boxing fans should lose one of the sport’s greatest champions in an age where its two most popular fighters make only excuses, and its dual heavyweight champions refuse to fight.
Joe Frazier never backed down from anyone. He accepted all comers. He intimidated all comers. And he earned the respect of all comers; even, Ali, who would later pay to Joe in tribute, “If God ever calls me to a Holy War, I want Joe Frazier fighting beside me.”
In the years since their third and final fight—remembered famously as the “Thrilla’ in Manila”—the once antagonistic Ali has softened his image, and naturally mellowed with age. He has made overtures to Frazier that he wishes their rivalry to be over, and their legacy to be that of two great athletes who brought out the best in each other, and not of two bitter enemies who brought out the worst.
But as Ali mellowed, Frazier became only more resolved in his spite. Though there were indeed public instances in which the two stood side-by-side and appeared to have mended their broken relationship, in private, Joe was believed to have been as vengeful as ever.
A 2009 documentary—entitled the Thrilla’ in Manila—shows an aged Frazier, recounting the events of his third fight with Ali, and looking back on the man who would help define his life, both personally and professionally. If you’ve never had the opportunity to watch the documentary, you can do so here. And then, when you’re done, watch the fight.
Watch the 14th round.
The 14th round of Ali-Frazier III may have been unlike anything seen before it, and it was certainly unlike anything seen after it. It is the most brutal, vile, nasty, disgusting, wonderfully captivating three minutes of sport ever contested. There is no clearer instance of everything both simultaneously right and wrong with the sport of boxing. It wasn’t a match. It wasn’t even a fight. It was a travesty, a travesty that could only be waged by two men with such an unparalleled contempt for one another.
Everything described in the introduction to this piece is true, or, at this stage, believed to be by those who were there. Joe Frazier fought the 14th round blind. Muhammad Ali fought with broken hands and ribs so badly bruised—and possibly even broken—that he stood from his corner and then promptly collapsed after the fight had mercifully ended. Years after his retirement from the ring, Frazier would reveal that he had competed for years with a cataract in one eye, making him, effectively, a half-blind boxer. When Ali landed enough punches directly to his face to close his other eye as a result of swelling, he really couldn’t see at all.
With a typically unrelenting Frazier using his remaining senses to hunt down and pummel Ali, the Louisville Slugger was having some issues of his own. Namely, that Joe had landed enough body shots to cause severe damage to his rib cage and prevent him from breathing without indescribable pain, and that Ali had landed so many shots of his own that he had nearly, if not totally, broken his hands on Frazier’s face and body. Ali, who won the fight by TKO just seconds before throwing in the towel himself, remarked that it was the closest he’d ever felt to death.
Watch the 14th round.
Watch it and stare in horror. Watch it and savor its meaning. Watch it, and, hell, just watch it. Watch how the man they called “Smokin’ Joe” was willing to risk his life—literally, his life—not just for a title, but for his own honor, his own pride.
Boxing will never see anything like the 14th round again. And as painful as that is for the sport’s fans to realize, it’s truly a blessing.
Joe Frazier died at the age of sixty-seven. For boxing fans, his legacy will live forever. We only hope his heart may finally be at peace.
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