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Smokin' Joe ruled in era when boxing meant world to people

BOXING: "Sit down, son," said the grand old trainer Eddie Futch, gently putting a fatherly hand on Joe Frazier's shoulder as the fighter, with face horribly pummelled, eyes practically blinded, body perilously close to shutting down but spirit still impossibly burning, pleaded that he must have that last-round crack at Muhammad Ali.

"It's all over. No one will ever forget what you did here today."

Eddie was right. Nobody ever forgot the 'Thrilla in Manila'. Nobody ever forgot the greatest fight of all. Nor its greatest champion. Nobody ever will.

And in Smokin' Joe, nobody will ever forget one of the most unfathomably courageous performances in sporting annals.



Bell

Perhaps that is why when we awoke to the news of the last bell having sounded for Frazier on Monday, a sense of loss will have coursed through a generation who grew up thrilling to him, not just as one half of the most fantastic individual rivalry sport has known but also as a shining star in a cast list which made 1970s heavyweight boxing the Hollywood of sport.

If Muhammad Ali was its swaggering king, its Clark Gable, then Joe was its ultimate little tough guy, its Jimmy Cagney.

It almost felt with Joe's passing that we were being given the last cruel, taunting reminder of an era when being heavyweight champion of the world really meant the world.

"I want to say sorry for the whole of boxing because Joe Frazier died and with him died a big era of great champions," said Vitali Klitschko yesterday.

Yes, even the brothers understood. They may rule the roost today but they have fought for a fragmented version of what was once the grandest prize in sport. They dominate a poverty-stricken, colourless imitation of the landscape which was fought over by Frazier, Ali, George Foreman, Ken Norton, Jimmy Ellis, Jerry Quarry, Larry Holmes and their ilk.

The 'Rumble in the Jungle', Earnie Shavers hitting Ali so hard that the great man swore his kinsfolk back in Africa would have felt it, Foreman punching Frazier so murderously that he literally lifted him off his feet, Ali battling Ken Norton with a broken jaw. These were the stories the Klitschkos grew up on, the fantastic film scripts they have been unable to write themselves because the supporting cast has been so wretched.

Ali may have been cast as 'The Greatest' but as Frazier himself would counter with furious indignation: "Ali always said I'd be nothing without him, but who would he have been without me?" It was a good question.



brutality

The truth was they built a legend off each other's brutality, brilliance and bravery and embellished it by combating the excellence of other fighters. This was an era in which legends could be burnished even in defeat.

For even today, the night that Foreman mercilessly put an end to Frazier's unbeaten record in Kingston by knocking him down six times in two rounds, is enshrined in the US thanks to the inimitable but much imitated Howard Cosell commentary: "Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!"

Back in 1971 when Frazier and Ali first fought for the title at Madison Square Garden, can you really believe that Frank Sinatra was an official fight photographer for Life magazine and Burt Lancaster was a ringside commentator? That's right; in the era when Joe Frazier was king, an era of glory that boxing will never see again, even the Hollywood legends were his mere courtiers.


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