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Boxing Aficionados Remember 'Smokin' Joe' Frazier

NEAL CONAN, host: Last night, the world lost a champion, Olympic gold medalist and later world heavyweight champ, Joe Frazier. Smokin' Joe won that title in the shadow of Muhammad Ali, who've been suspended after he refused to report for military service. But Frazier proved himself every bit a champion in three epic fights with his great rival. Joe Frazier died last night, just weeks after being diagnosed with liver cancer. He was 67 years old. What's your memory of Joe Frazier?

Call us, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Boxing historian Bert Sugar joins us now from his home in Chappaqua, New York. Nice to have you with us today.

BERT SUGAR: It's nice to be here. At my age, it's nice to be anywhere, Neal.

CONAN: Well, it's a sad occasion. Is it fair that we remember Joe Frazier as the standard by which we measure Muhammad Ali?

SUGAR: I don't think he's measured as the standard, but I do think it's unfair that he's basically interlinked so closely with Muhammad Ali. We never refer to their first fight, won by Joe Frazier, as Frazier-Ali. It's Ali-Frazier. We never refer to their three fights, and that was a heck of a - I guess, I can say heck of a. It was a heck of a trilogy, coming down the line, ending in the one in the Philippines, and it's still called Ali-Frazier. Frazier has always been the second banana.

And for today, today alone, he stands on his own. He doesn't have to share a shadow with Muhammad Ali. He is one of the 10 greatest heavyweight champions of all time and should be remembered alone, not as part of any Ali-Frazier twosome.

CONAN: Anybody who saw him fight will never forget that relentless style. He was always advancing, moving toward his opponent relentlessly.

SUGAR: Well, he had one gear - forward, left hook, forward, left hook, forward, left hook, forward, left hook. You got that? Next step - forward, left hook, forward, left hook, forward, left hook. That left hook could take apart barns, buildings brick by brick, and that's what he survived on, and that's what he made his name on. And it was a left hook that was basically learned in the cornfields of South Carolina, where his dad, who had lost his arm in an accident, auto accident, had his young son, Joseph, hold saws, planks, what have you while he - with his left hand, while he did the work, whether it was nailing the nail or doing something. Out of that came Joe Frazier's left hook from it.


SUGAR: I'm sorry. Left hook from hell because that's what it was. And it decimated. There's still I'm sure former opponents walking around the streets looking for boxing's home for the woefully beaten just because they fought Joe Frazier with one of the greatest left hooks in history. People will remember the 15th round against - by Frazier against Ali. What they don't remember is that he shook Ali up in the 11th. He hurt him in the fourth. Joe Frazier was one of the greats.

And what has always bothered me, Neal, about Frazier is that he's always been part of Ali-Frazier. They say it that quickly. He's gone, Ali-Frazier. And to that end, we've lessened him. We've marginalized him because he stands on his own, especially today, as one of the 10 greatest heavyweight champions.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in involved in the conversation. We want to hear your memories of Joe Frazier. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Reese(ph) is on the line, calling us from Laramie, Wyoming.

REESE: Thanks for having me on, Neal and Bert. It's a pleasure to talk to someone of your caliber. I wanted to say that my memory - I'm too young to even have experienced any of Joe Louis - excuse me - Joe Frazier's fights. But I remember watching about (technical difficulty) I think it was their first one. And when Joe Louis knocked down Muhammad Ali for the first time. You could see...

SUGAR: Wait a minute. Time out. Go backwards.

CONAN: Joe Frazier, you meant to say.

REESE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm sorry. Oh, gosh. I keep doing that. I'm sorry. I'm nervous. But he knocked him down for the first time. And you could see somebody had taken a picture almost at the point of impact, and it looked like it left a mark on the camera. And it was like a super nova went off, like a thunderclap because I was just - I was blown away. It was just this earth-shuttering event to see Muhammad Ali just dropped, and it was stunning. It was beautiful. It was amazing.

CONAN: The person...

SUGAR: It was Neil Leifer's great picture, and Neil was there almost as a freelancer. The assignment for Sports Illustrated had gone to Herbie Cohen. And if you look closely, he's across the ring with his mouth open and his camera pressed against his chest.


REESE: Oh, man.

CONAN: That's a great picture. Reese, thanks very much for the call.

REESE: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Tyson. Tyson with us from Winston-Salem.

TYSON: Yeah. Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead. You're on the air.

TYSON: Yeah, when I was - I just wanted to share a story about meeting Joe Frazier. I was a 12-year-old kid and a friend of a friend knew Joe Frazier. They owned a restaurant. And in the parking lot behind the restaurant, Joe Frazier shadowboxed with me, and I was - I can remember being just absolutely scared to death that one of his punches would land.


TYSON: And, you know, it was just absolutely remarkable. Here he is and he was amicable. And it was just one of those stories that I tell all the time. I shadowboxed with Joe Frazier.

CONAN: I can understand why you would say it. And, Bert Sugar, Joe Frazier also remembered as a gentleman outside the ring.

SUGAR: He was such a nice person. He was the lunch-pail-type of boxer. He just came, did his job, and went on being a nice person. Joe Frazier sometimes didn't understand what was happening to him, as witnessed by all the hubbub before the first Ali-Frazier fight, when Ali called him a gorilla and other shameful, shameful slurs and, unfortunately he carried that hurt all the way to two days ago. He never let it go.

CONAN: Long-time HBO sports commentator Larry Merchant covered the Fight of the Century for The New York Post back in 1971. The next morning, The Post ran this lead: Muhammad Ali fought a truth machine last night, and the truth that emerged was painfully clear. The arrogance and hubris that made Ali a great champion made him a former champion. You can't con Joe Frazier for 15 rounds. Joe Frazier comes at you too honestly, too openly. And Larry Merchant...

SUGAR: He does.

CONAN: Larry Merchant joins us now from his home in Los Angeles. Nice to have you with us.


CONAN: And that line, you can't con Joe Frazier, what did you mean by that?

MERCHANT: Well, Joe fought in a way that is rare in boxing, particularly for heavyweights, in that he would never stop coming at you. And that – what that meant inside the ring was that fighters who could fight in their own style and pace and do what they want to do suddenly find their instinct for survival kicking in, self-preservation. And so, for the few years, that type of fighter can be on top because of the training it takes to fight that way, because of the punishment they take. They can be extraordinarily popular as witnessed the two previous heavyweight champions who fought in that style, Jack Dempsey and Rocky Marciano - short but brilliant, fiery careers.

And so he was a handful for anybody, and I think that that first fight with Ali was the apex of his career. He puts such an effort into that fight and took so much punishment that he wound up in a hospital for nine days recovering from the effort, from the depletion of his body. And I would maintain he was never at that level again. And his next greatest fight, which arguably is the best heavyweight fight ever, was the third fight between them, when they were both older and a little slower, and it was just a test of will.

CONAN: And Joe Frazier's will did not flag. He was determined to come out for that last round. He was prevented from doing so.

MERCHANT: Well, I think that Eddie Futch, his trainer, knew the end was there. He was trying to save his life not to fight. And nobody ever questioned that he didn't do the right thing.

CONAN: We're talking with two men who've seen a lot of Joe Frazier's fights and seen a lot of Joe Frazier. They are Bert Sugar, and also with us is Larry Merchant. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Robert. Robert is with us on the line from Chicago.

ROBERT: Hi. I got a question for Larry. I remember, as an older teenager, when Joe was going through the fights with some heavyweight (unintelligible), I remember seeing a picture in some magazine where he was doing squats with, like, a 1-year-old calf on his shoulders. Do you remember that picture?

MERCHANT: I'm sorry. I didn't quite hear you. What was on his shoulders?

CONAN: A 1-year-old calf.

ROBERT: Yeah, a cow, a calf. It wasn't a full-grown, but it was a 1-year-old.

MERCHANT: I have a vague recollection, but not a very clear one...


MERCHANT: ...of something like that.

CONAN: Boxing champions used to take all kinds of pictures like that, so did Babe Ruth and a lot of baseball players too. Robert, thanks very much...

MERCHANT: Yeah. You know, that was some PR guy's idea of how to get a picture in the paper, presumably, where Ali was just this beautiful, natural showman who used ridicule as a way of to create a narrative for the fight that was upcoming. And sometimes it crossed over into cruelty which humor can do when it's aimed at you, and it was aimed Frazier and Liston and many others. But as Bert Sugar pointed out, Joe carried it with him throughout his life.

CONAN: The bitterness, was there nothing that - we kept hearing that there had been reconciliations at various points. I guess, that never did really happen.


MERCHANT: No. I think they meant it. Joe meant it at the time. But deep down, there was a hurt. And it wasn't just from the ridicule, in my opinion. It was that he knew he was - or felt he was every bit as a good as Muhammad Ali. But it was a situation not so dissimilar from Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard, that Ali was an extraordinary man and Joe was an ordinary man, that Ali stopped traffic wherever he went. He was provocative. He was a pied piper. Everything that Joe did or virtually everything was in terms of Ali. When is Ali coming back to fight him? And would they fight and so on. And so, this was something that was very deep inside Joe. And in a way, you have to respect it. That was how he felt, and he was willing to show us.

CONAN: Bert Sugar, you said no, he never did reconcile.

SUGAR: No. There were attempts made and you get all this little, you know, foo-fooing(ph) and it's going to happen, and it never did. And I think, in their perversity, they were very comfortable with just carrying this hate, particularly Joe Frazier. Ali didn't care. Ali just threw out slings and arrows, calling George Foreman a mummy, and Ernie Shavers an acorn. And he would just throw these out. Some people...

MERCHANT: Called Liston a big bear.


CONAN: Liston, The Big Bear, yes.

SUGAR: But Joe, it hurt. The gorilla in Manila.

MERCHANT: And particularly because Joe Frazier - in those times, with all of the social turmoil and the political turmoil that was associated with it, Joe was supported by the anti-Clay or anti-Ali people, anti-him for changing...

SUGAR: Anti-war.

MERCHANT: And they were anti-him because of his anti-war status. They were anti-him because he was part of the black movement of the '60s. So - and Joe just represented, you know, what I would call a red state mentality, a go-to-work mentality. And you didn't hear - he communicated through how he fought, not through his thoughts on the world scene. So there was a natural divide there, and that's where Ali, once again, crossed the line when he called him an Uncle Tom.

CONAN: Well...


SUGAR: I never got the belief that Joe understood what the hell was happening.

MERCHANT: I agree, and I'm not sure that Ali was fully aware of all of the implications of everything he did. But he was just this force of nature from the time he was a kid and, you know, going to the Olympics. I mean, thousands of athletes at the Olympics, and who stood out? An American light heavyweight.

CONAN: Gentlemen, it's a sad occasion but good to speak with you both, Bert Sugar, and also, of course with us Larry Merchant.

SUGAR: And nice to remember Joe Frazier.

CONAN: And nice to remember Joe Frazier. Thank you, gentlemen, both, for your time. Larry Merchant, ringside announcer for HBO, and he joined us today from Los Angeles, Bert Sugar from his home in Chappaqua in New York.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.