Fearless and relentless, Joe Frazier was a Philadelphia-born pugilistic machine who embodied every hard-nosed, blue-collar trait that defined the city of his birth. Running on the streets of the city and punching sides of beef to prepare for a fight? Long before there was Rocky Balboa, there was Frazier.
Frazier first gained national prominence when he won the gold medal at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.
Of course, Frazier’s career-defining fights were his three epics against Muhammad Ali.
Their first match in 1971 was billed as the “Fight of the Century,” and it lived up to the hype. Frazier preserved his unbeaten record by handing Ali his first career loss in a 15-round decision.
The rematch saw the two titans return to Madison Square Garden in a non-title bout, with Ali evening the score in a decision of his own. It set the stage for their 1975 Thrilla in Manila, often considered the greatest fight in history.
Ali was merciless in the lead-up to the fight, openly mocking Frazier and calling him a “gorilla.”
Frazier’s fury was real. “ I want to hurt him,” he said. “I don't want to knock him out, I want to take his heart out.”
What happened next was the stuff of sports legend. Ali took the early lead, but Frazier started unleashing hell in the third.
Frazier battered the champ in the middle rounds, but not without paying a tremendous price of his own. Ali started to close Frazier’s eye in the 12th, and left Frazier a battered mess through the 14th.
Frazier’s corner, rather than let him absorb even more punishment, stopped him from coming out for the final round. For his part, Ali said “It was the closest I’ve come to death.”
Frazier would hold on to his animosity for years before finally reconciling with Ali in 2009.
He was diagnosed with liver cancer in September 2011, and died two months later. At his funeral, Ali stood and applauded the fallen champion.