His name was Joe Frazier, but to boxing fans, he was known as ‘Smokin’ Joe, a fighter who was relentless in the ring, pressing his opponent, bobbing and weaving, and lashing out with a wicked left-hook that usually left his opponents dazed, if not unconscious.
The times and the fates conspired to place him in the opposite corner against Muhammad Ali, one of the most dazzling fighters of his generation, almost at the peak of his game. When they fought in New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1971, the whole nation took notice. For one thing, the two fighters were to become the best-paid prize fighters in boxing history. For another, Ali, having been stripped of his boxing license for three years after refusing to join the Army and fight in Vietnam, was perhaps the most famous boxer since Jack Johnson. Ali’s membership in the Nation of Islam (known as Black Muslims) also added to his notoriety.
The Ali-Frazier battle was epic. Afterwards, Ali would say the bout was the ‘closest he ever came to death’. But the fight took on a symbolic significance that far outweighed the sport itself. Ali, as a Black Muslim, and outspokenly anti-war, was an icon of the Left. The boxing establishment, the press, the system hated him. Frazier, ridiculed by Ali as an ‘Uncle Tom’, was the darling of the pro-war Right.
He was lionized by the media, and the white majority. And when he beat Ali, when he dazed him with that left hook, the Right howled with glee, and the Left was crestfallen. But his win never earned him the unofficial title of ‘People’s Champ’. While famous and well regarded in Philadelphia, Ali was loved and adored, for his battles out of the ring. The two men, even decades later, never truly reconciled, and Ali’s admiration, especially among Blacks, left a bitter taste in Frazier’s mouth.
In truth, both elevated the game to heights rarely seen before, and seldom seen since. And their fight was the closest to battle–without firearms.