And had Ali’s reign as champion continued unchecked across the latter third of the Sixties, it is likely that the dwindling ranks of suitable opponents for The Greatest would have produced, in boxing circles, an irresistible clamor for Ali to meet Frazier, a hero of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, much earlier than March 1971. And in such circumstances, Ali would have made short work of Frazier: The Ali of 1967 was faster, sharper, less given to tomfoolery in the ring, flat-out better, than the Ali of 1971, and Frazier would not yet have reached his prime. What’s more, their showdown at the Garden was only Ali’s third bout after his three-year layoff, and it came just 90 days after Ali had endured 15 grueling rounds, in the same Madison Square Garden ring, against the confounding Argentinian slugger Oscar Bonavena.
Another cruelty of history and fate: Frazier attained the heavyweight championship only because he won the elimination tournament held after Ali was stripped of his license to fight. The capstone moment for Smokin’ Joe came on Feb. 16, 1970, when he defeated an otherwise forgotten heavyweight named Jimmy Ellis — best known as Ali’s sparring partner and the first opponent Ali would fight (and beat) after his historic loss to Frazier.
Crueler still: The boxing call most enduringly associated with Smokin’ Joe — perhaps the most famous boxing call of all time — is a testament to Frazier’s complete destruction, an oral epitaph at the nadir of his career: Howard Cosell’s hoarse battle cry of “Down goes FRAY
-zhuh! Down goes FRAY
-zhuh! Down goes FRAY
-zhuh!” in the first round of the fight in which Frazier lost his heavyweight belt to George Foreman, in Jamaica, on Jan. 22, 1973. Foreman’s punches literally lifted Frazier off the canvas, and put him back down there, six times in two rounds.
A final cruelty: The Ali–Frazier–Foreman axis served, with unusual clarity, to disprove the applicability of the transitive property to sports. If A is greater than B, we all learned, and B is greater than C, then A must also, by definition, be greater than C. Not in boxing. Frazier floored Ali, and Foreman annihilated Frazier, so in transitive terms, Foreman should have absolutely decimated The Greatest. But in the Rumble in the Jungle, the Foreman–Ali fight held in Kinshasa, Zaire, on Oct. 30, 1974, and memorialized in the documentary When We Were Kings, Ali easily KO’d Foreman in eight rounds. In an instant, Ali became not only the first boxer to regain the heavyweight championship, but the undisputed conqueror of the transitive property.
That wasn’t really the final cruelty, of course; there followed the long anticlimax of Frazier’s post-championship life and career, and the irrevocable sentence he was doomed to serve out, as a character in the inescapable Book of Ali. But wherever Joe is smokin’ today, whatever ring now trembles at his plodding, bobbing, weaving, left-hooking genius, let us honor his humanity with the fervent wish that the place is packed to the rafters with appreciative fans, all there to see Joe Frazier, good and decent man, heroic fighter and heavyweight champion, and no one else.
— James Rosen is chief Washington correspondent of Fox News. He is the author of The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate and is at work on a book about the Beatles.
editor’s note: This article has been amended since its initial publication.