- Associated Press - Monday, November 7, 2011

PHILADELPHIA — He beat Muhammad Ali in the Fight of the Century, battled him nearly to the death in the Thrilla in Manila. Then Joe Frazier spent the rest of his life trying to fight his way out of Ali’s shadow.

That was one fight Frazier could never win.

He was once a heavyweight champion, and a great one at that. Ali would say as much after Frazier knocked him down in the 15th round en route to becoming the first man to beat Ali at Madison Square Garden in March 1971.

But he bore the burden of being Ali’s foil, and he paid the price. Bitter for years about the taunts his former nemesis once threw his way, Frazier only in recent times came to terms with what happened in the past and said he had forgiven Ali for everything he said.

Frazier, who died Monday night after a brief battle with liver cancer at the age of 67, will forever be linked to Ali. But no one in boxing would ever dream of anointing Ali as The Greatest unless he, too, was linked to Smokin’ Joe.

“You can’t mention Ali without mentioning Joe Frazier,” said former AP boxing writer Ed Schuyler Jr. “He beat Ali, don’t forget that.”

They fought three times, twice in the heart of New York City and once in the morning in a steamy arena in the Philippines. They went 41 rounds together, with neither giving an inch and both giving 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. “That was the greatest thing that ever happened in my life.”

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 hotel-casino shortly before Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s fight against Victor Ortiz.

An old friend, Gene Kilroy, visited with him and watched Frazier work the crowd.

“He was so nice to everybody,” Kilroy said. “He would say to each of them, ‘Joe Frazier, sharp as a razor, what’s your name?’”

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