Joe Frazier needed the night of his career to knock down “The Greatest.”
Frazier knocked Muhammad Ali down in the 15th round and became the first man to beat him in the Fight of the Century at Madison Square Garden in March 1971, the first in a trilogy of bouts that have gone down as boxing’s most fabled fights.
“That was the greatest thing that ever happened in my life,” Frazier said.
It was his biggest night, one that would never come again.
The relentless, undersized heavyweight ruled the division as champion, then spent a lifetime trying to fight his way out of Ali’s shadow.
Frazier, who died Monday night after a brief battle with liver cancer at the age of 67, will forever be associated with Ali. No one in boxing would ever dream of anointing Ali as The Greatest unless he, too, was linked to Smokin’ Joe.
“I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration,” Ali said in a statement. “My sympathy goes out to his family and loved ones.”
They fought three times, twice in the heart of New York City and once in the morning in a steamy arena in the Thrilla in Manila the Philippines. They went 41 rounds together. Neither gave an inch and both gave it their all.
In their last fight in Manila in 1975, they traded punches with a fervor that seemed unimaginable among heavyweights. Frazier gave almost as good as he got for 14 rounds, then had to be held back by trainer Eddie Futch as he tried to go out for the final round, unable to see.
“Closest thing to dying that I know of,” Ali said afterward.
Ali was as merciless with Frazier out of the ring as he was inside it. He called him a gorilla, and mocked him as an Uncle Tom. But he respected him as a fighter, especially after Frazier won a decision to defend his heavyweight title against the then-unbeaten Ali in a fight that was so big Frank Sinatra was shooting pictures at ringside and both fighters earned an astonishing $2.5 million.
The night at the Garden 40 years ago remained fresh in Frazier’s mind as he talked about his life, career and relationship with Ali a few months before he died.
“I can’t go nowhere where it’s not mentioned,” he told The Associated Press.
Bob Arum, who once promoted Ali, said he was saddened by Frazier’s passing.
“He was such an inspirational guy. A decent guy. A man of his word,” Arum said. “I’m torn up by Joe dying at this relatively young age. I can’t say enough about Joe.”
Frazier’s death was announced in a statement by his family, who asked to be able to grieve privately and said they would announce “our father’s homecoming celebration” as soon as possible.
Manny Pacquiao learned of it shortly after he arrived in Las Vegas for his fight Saturday night with Juan Manuel Marquez. Like Frazier in his prime, Pacquiao has a powerful left hook that he has used in his remarkable run to stardom.
“Boxing lost a great champion, and the sport lost a great ambassador,” Pacquiao said.
Don King, who promoted the Thrilla in Manila, was described by a spokesman as too upset to talk about Frazier’s death.
Though slowed in his later years and his speech slurred by the toll of punches taken in the ring, Frazier was still active on the autograph circuit in the months before he died. In September he went to Las Vegas, where he signed autographs in the lobby of the MGM Grand shortly before Floyd Mayweather Jr.‘s fight against Victor Ortiz.