Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Rest in Peace, Joe Frazier

If you were a sports fan in the 1970s, there were certain athletes, certain teams, certain events that will remain in your memory forever — Muhammad Ali, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the tragedy of the 1972 Summer Olympics, the list goes on and on.

You can't think of those Olympic Games without seeing, in your mind's eye, hooded terrorists and a somber Jim McKay telling viewers that the Israeli athletes had been killed.

You can't think of the Steelers of that time and not think of the team they beat in two classic Super Bowls, the Dallas Cowboys.

And you can't think of Ali without thinking of his three epic fights with Joe Frazier.

Frazier died of liver cancer late Monday. He was 67 years old.

He was an intense battler in the ring, a great champion in his own right, but he will always be remembered for those three fights he had with Ali. Smokin' Joe actually won the first one, much to the delight of right–wing boxing fans who felt Ali should have gone to Vietnam, and survived their grueling finale in the Philippines, dubbed "the Thrilla in Manila."

I suppose it's that first Ali–Frazier fight that people think of the most when they think of Frazier — and that is ironic, I guess, because, as I say, that is the only fight of the three that Frazier won. But it was the third fight that Ali said was the closest he ever came to death.

I always felt that first fight was too mired in politics. The two men became political symbols, whether that was what they desired or not. Supporters of the Vietnam War gravitated to Frazier, opponents gravitated to Ali. Very few seemed to be interested in the fight from a purely athletic perspective, and, consequently, relatively few recognized it for its boxing brilliance. It was called the "Fight of the Century," and many fights have been called that, but that first Ali–Frazier duel really lived up to it.

Frazier took a lot of abuse from Ali in public, and he resented it for much of his life. But those who should know say that he forgave Ali for everything in recent years, and the two apparently became friends.

Much will be said about Joe Frazier in the days ahead, and he deserves all the accolades he will receive. I'm sure some of the warmest will come from Ali, who is forever linked to Frazier — like Affirmed and Alydar, they were thoroughbreds whose legends would have been incomplete without the other.

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