The night Joe took down AliTo be a true champion, you need a nemesis, and opposite number...a villain. They have to rise the stature of the champion, be his equal, match him, at times defeat him, to make the eventual triumph of the champion all the more sweet. In a true test one has to grudgingly respect them for their mettle, if not the skill in which he's faced his foe. And because the world is as it is, it is possible that this villain might even transform in the collective conscious into the hero, given time or the proper mindset.
Such was Joe Frazier.
In the annals of sport, the greats always have the one who tests them, and as Magic & Bird and McEnroe & Bjorg have been linked forever, so too have Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. Champions both who waged pugilistic battles unimaginable today. Unfortunately, the circumstances worked out that Frazier gained the heavyweight championship belt in a less than auspicious way : after then Champion Ali was stripped of the title for his objection to serving in Vietnam.
Joe supported Ali's religious objection to Active duty, even going so far as seeking out a license to for Ali so the man could get back in the ring and giving his competitor money. Joe actually cared about his foe. True, Joe's motives weren't completely pure - he needed to beat Ali to give legitimacy to his title. To be the man, you have to beat the man. But Joe was a good person first, a sportsman second.
Yet, after his suspension ended, Ali turned on Joe. They were the original "beef", with the taunts getting personal, and at times racial. They turned into boxing's Batman v. the Joker, with less articulate Joe cast in the role of villain to Ali's mouthy superhero. Their battles became epic feats of manhood, boxing artistry and personal fortitude. But Batman needs the Joker. Without him, Batman just a guy in a funny suit, with a snazzy car and a really bad case of insomnia. And equally Ali needed Frazier. The only way Ali could be great is if Frazier was as well. And so they have equal billing in the pantheon of sport.
Together, they were the main event. One could only imagine the spectacle that the "Thrilla in Manila" would be with today's media machines. This was a fight that put a war on hold.
As much as we admire Ali, to get to the idea of Ali we need Joe Frazier.
He was a simple guy, born of poor circumstances who ascended to greatness, only to find himself cast in a role less than desirable for someone of his talents. He was champion, one of the best boxers ever, who history sadly remembers as a foil.
And for that history is lacking.