Greatest sports rivalries: Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier

In the ring, they even looked like the Taijitu, the symbol for yin and yang—Muhammad Ali erect, left jab extended, head held high (too high, an old-timer would tell you), Joe Frazier crouching, hands in front of his face, his head on Ali’s chest, the left hook forever cocked and ready.

Has there been a more perfect, essential, organic rivalry in sport, one that wasn’t just about the crest on a jersey, about town versus town, but that came from so deep inside two human beings?

And Ali and Frazier, who spent 41 rounds in the ring together, a little over two hours in all, ending finally when trainer Eddie Futch refused to let Frazier leave his corner for the 15th round in Manila, would be locked in that death dance forever, Frazier relentlessly pressing forward, Ali jabbing, slipping, trying to discourage him, to punish him for his indomitable will, almost nothing to choose between them.

But outside the ring, it was a rout. It was a mismatch. Frazier had no counter for Ali’s insults, his cruel jokes, his dehumanizing nicknames. When Ali was forced into exile for his refusal to honour the draft, Frazier became champ in his absence and then tried to help him get his licence back, offered to loan him money, tried to help him return to the ring and make millions of dollars for both of them. And then to be called ugly and ignorant and an Uncle Tom, to be labelled a gorilla—that stuck in Joe’s craw.

Maybe for Ali it was all just a game, a way to get inside his opponent’s head, to sell a few more tickets, to fill arenas around the world for the closed-circuit broadcast. But Frazier wasn’t playing along. What boiled inside him was the resentment born of an early life of pitiless poverty, a later life without gimmes. Even when he held that most glorious title in sport, heavyweight champion of the world, he was forced to stand in another man’s shadow, was treated like an asterisk.

Years later, when Ali could no longer run verbal rings around him, Frazier finally got to do most of the talking. Sometimes he tried to say what people wanted him to say—that he loved his adversary the way they did, that he felt badly for what had befallen him. But inevitably, his real feelings would seep out, and he would say something about how his fists had done God’s will, causing Ali’s Parkinsonism, how it would have been fitting if Ali had fallen into the Olympic cauldron in Atlanta.

On the night Frazier’s daughter fought Ali’s, Joe was asked if Ali was going to be there, whether he knew how his old foe was feeling. “I don’t know nothin’ about him,” Joe said. “But I know one thing. He thinks about me. He thinks about me every day when he gets out of bed.”

If you knew him even a little, you understood that malice came from hurt. One day, walking out of his gym in North Philadelphia, Frazier stopped and pointed to an old Life magazine cover framed on the wall. The photo was shot just before The Fight of the Century in 1971, Ali and Frazier’s first meeting, the only one that Joe won, famously knocking Ali down for an exclamation point. Both men are wearing flamboyant dinner jackets and frilly shirts and huge bow ties, as per the style of the time. “Look at that picture,” said Frazier, who died in 2011 at the age of 67. “You tell me. Who’s more handsome? Who’s the more handsome man? You tell me I’m not more handsome than he is.”

In a real rivalry, you have to choose. You have to pick a side.

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