Richard Hoffer is one of the best writers to ever cover sports in this country, first at the L.A. Times and then at Sports Illustrated. His prose is graceful and precise, he’s understated and funny.
Here is he on Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali in the current issue of SI:
It was no wonder Joe Frazier was so bitter. He was made to seem the foil, a mere accomplice in mythology, consigned to a supporting role in Muhammad Ali’s extravagant, ego-driven drama. It is a harsh truth that if you participate in the most exciting rivalry of a century, it does you little good even to win one of its three bouts. The verdict of history is decisive, and it is permanent, and men like Frazier, who stumble at the precipice, are forever remaindered on the heap of losers, their vinegary claims to justice lost in the courts of public opinion. It was no wonder, then, that when Ali lit the Olympic torch in 1996, his trembling hands viewed as a physical artifact of heroism by an adoring world, Frazier allowed that if he’d had his way, he’d have pitched Ali into the fire.
…In 1975—Ali now 33, Frazier 31—they met again in the near-death experience that would ever after be known as the Thrilla in Manila. Ali was even crueler in his prefight taunts, exploiting the fact that gorilla rhymed with the venue. Frazier, by turns mystified and hurt, was provoked beyond the requirements of the bout. While Ali would always say he was only boosting the box office, Frazier could never accept any explanation for attacks that might affect his children’s impression of him. “Look at my beautiful kids,” he’d say. “How can I be a gorilla?”
But not even animus could account for what happened that morning in the Philippines. It was such a violent affair—recklessness tilting it first Ali’s way, then Frazier’s way and then Ali’s again—that it seemed less a boxing match than an exploration of man’s capacities, a test of his will to win or at least survive. But once it turned Ali’s way again in the 12th round, too much had gone before for yet another reversal. There wasn’t anything left in either man. Before the 15th and final round Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, called it quits, saving his fighter from certain ruin, even as Ali was instructing his corner to cut his gloves off. It was victory, but by attrition.
Ali called it “the closest thing to dying I know of,” and he didn’t know the half of it. Their careers were essentially over that day, their 41 rounds of shared agony making any further discoveries in the ring unnecessary, or even possible. Frazier lost a rematch to Foreman and called it quits. Ali managed to dominate the game for several years more, but only on the basis of his personality—he was spent. Even then he was beginning a slow and ironic decline, Parkinson’s eventually rendering him rigid and mute, the final price for all those wars.
Ali’s respect for Frazier was enormous, and he apologized for his name-calling on several occasions. “I couldn’t have done what I did without him,” he once said.
Frazier repaid the compliment: “We were gladiators. I didn’t ask no favors of him, and he didn’t ask none of me.” They recognized that their destinies were entwined, that neither would have achieved his greatness without the other. But Ali could afford to concede the point, being the most popular athlete, even personality, in the world. Frazier, who spent the rest of his life living above his gym in Philadelphia, did not have the comfort of the world’s goodwill—he lived in an age that would reward style over substance every time—and so maintained his half of the blood feud as vigorously as possible, even seeming to take a grim satisfaction in Ali’s poor health, proof of who really won that day in Manila.
That a feel-good reconciliation would elude the two men who shaped such a magnificent rivalry is apt. Even if they were more like brothers than foes—who else could understand the kind of pride that forced them through those three battles?—fighters like them could never really enjoy a cease-fire, could never drop their hands, as if they alone knew what man was truly capable of.