The first bout, at the Madison Square Gardens in 1971, was simply billed ‘The fight'. Muhammad Ali's boxing licence, which had been suspended for nearly three years following his refusal to serve in the US army, had just been reinstated and the former heavyweight champion was ready to reclaim his title. Meanwhile, Frazier, the reigning champion, had picked up the gold at the 1966 Tokyo Olympics, making light of a broken thumb. In fact, fighting through injury was a re current motif for Frazier as his vision in the left eye was partially impaired after a training accident, a handicap he carried through his career. Frazier's calm presented the perfect foil to Ali's glibness. He was the conformist to Ali's defiance. He was the charging bull to Ali's floating butter-fly.
The first fight saw Frazier live up to his ‘Smokin Joe' reputation, as he came out hooking and cutting, punching and plugging. “Joe Frazier would come out smoking.
If you hit him, he liked it. If you knocked him down, you only made him mad,” said George Foreman. Having trained specifically for Ali's weakness, especially his tendency to drop the right hand before launching into the upper-cut, Frazier used his famed left hook to floor Ali twice, in the eleventh and fourteenth rounds.
Though Ali was up in a flash on both occasions, Frazier won the contest on a unanimous decision. In 1974, a re-match was conceived and this time it was Ali who won the contest with comparative ease, but by now the encounter had gathered around it an irresistible aura that drew the world media in.
The fights acquired a cult status, a clash of personalities, of fighting styles and even ideologies. A decider, dubbed ‘Thrilla in Manilla' was arranged in 1975, the fight to end all fights. Ali began his verbal jousting even before the contest, claiming it would be “a killa and a thrilla and a chilla when he got the gorilla in Manila”.
The fight raged and raged, with Frazier pummelling Ali in the initial rounds only for Ali to come back from the eleventh round on. With the heat taking its toll, both boxers staggered through the final rounds and when Frazier's eyes were too swollen up for him to continue, Ali got up from his corner, exalted and then collapsed.
Both fighters agreed that it was the closest they came to death.