The sight of a bent 69-year-old man, his once handsome face ravaged by Parkinson's, slowly making his way to his car after attending the funeral of his great rival brought back memories of one of the stirring chapters in the annals of sport. For, no two athletes are bound to each other in history in quite the same way as Muhammad Ali — named by Time magazine and Sports Illustrated as the Sportsperson of the 20th century — and Joe Frazier, who passed away recently after a battle with liver cancer. Sport has revelled in any number of celebrated rivalries. And professional boxing has had more than its share, from the bare knuckle days of Jack Johnson through the memorable Joe Louis-Max Schmeling era when the confrontations had unmistakable ideological implications —'The Brown Bomber' versus 'The Aryan Superman' — and beyond. But no other pair of boxers has ever featured in fights of such gladiatorial severity and nerve-jangling compulsion as did Ali and Frazier from 1971 to 1975. Their three bouts, starting with what is widely acknowledged as the Fight of the Century, at the Madison Square Garden in New York in March 1971, and ending with the ‘Thrilla in Manila,' a brutal death-or-glory contest in 1975, have the kind of powerful emotional valence that is unmatched in modern sport.
Of course, there is a back-story to this operatic storyline. Ali, stripped of his heavyweight title in 1967 following his refusal of the draft to fight in the Vietnam War — he won back his boxing licence in 1970 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favour — was not merely a hero; he was at the opposite end of the spectrum in African-American society from Frazier, who said he would have had no ideological issues about fighting in Vietnam if he had not been a father. And boxing in America in that era had a relevance that went way beyond the ring. The insolently charismatic Ali knew how to take advantage of the socio-political ramifications of his rivalry with Frazier. He called his opponent, a relatively short man (under 180 cm) a “gorilla” and “Uncle Tom.” But the rather reticent Frazier, who had spent time working in a butcher's shop before winning an Olympic gold medal in 1964, was not only a courageous and resourceful fighter. He knew how and where to give vent to his anger. He had a left hook that could bring down prison walls and it did floor Ali in the first of their three fights. But round for brutal round, blow for blow, their last fight in Manila was perhaps the most memorable and also a fitting climax to a rivalry that has a near-mythical aura to it. Ali said it was “the closest thing to dying that I know of,” after responding to Frazier's challenge with extraordinary resilience and typical emotional intensity.