Top rivalry: a real “Thrilla'”
Greg Hadley | Sunday, January 26, 2014
This is the sixth in a 10-part series discussing the best rivalry in sports. In this installment, Greg Hadley argues that Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier deserves the top spot. Join the discussion on Twitter by using the #BestRivalry.
What are the ingredients for a great rivalry?
Obviously, there has to be a mutual disdain between the two teams or individuals. A friendly rivalry is nice, but it’s not a great one.
Both individuals also need to be at the top of their sport. Nobody noticed the Seahawks-49ers rivalry until both teams started winning.
A rivalry has to have history to be great too. The longer, the better.
And most importantly, a truly great rivalry is bigger than sports. In the very best rivalries, the two sides represent something bigger than themselves.
By all these measures, no rivalry can compare to the one between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Three epic fights, spanning four years, at a time when boxing was still one of the most popular sports in the world.
One might argue that because they only fought three times, the rivalry was less bitter than those that span decades. But Frazier and Ali poured more intensity and venom into those three fights than most athletes can even dream of.
At the time of the first bout, in 1971, both boxers were undefeated. Frazier was the World Champion, because Ali had been stripped of his title for resisting the draft for Vietnam. For many, Ali represented the young, the liberal and the anti-war movement, while Frazier was backed by those that supported the war. The fight itself went the full 15 rounds, with Frazier winning by unanimous decision. Ali, to put it delicately, disagreed. With his signature style and flair, he basically called the decision a travesty.
Three years later, neither fighter was World Champion, but when they met up to fight again, a firestorm erupted. In a pre-bout interview on ABC, Ali, again being Ali, started to pick a fight with Frazier, calling him ignorant. Frazier, normally a calm, dispassionate person, blew up and the two started wrestling on live TV. Imagine if Richard Sherman and Michael Crabtree stopped trash-talking and actually started going at it while Erin Andrews tried to interview them. Now add about thirty pounds each, not to mention no pads and punches that would knock most people out.
The fight itself went to Ali by unanimous decision, but both sides were not happy about the refereeing. Ali got away with grabbing Frazier’s neck illegally, and the referee stopped a round early, stopping Ali from delivering a knockout blow. Ali went on to beat George Foreman in The Rumble in the Jungle, winning the championship belt back.
Finally, the two met for the last time in the Thrilla in Manila. The fight is recognized as one of, if not the greatest fight in boxing history. In the run-up to the fight, Ali let loose on Frazier, calling him stupid, ignorant and ugly. He promised that, “it will be a Killa and a Thrilla and a Chilla when I get The Gorilla in Manila.”
Frazier, for his part, used political connections to prevent the referee of the second bout from even traveling to the Philippines. He also said his strategy was to hit Ali so hard and often in the body that his organs would stop functioning. At a press conference, he said he wanted Ali’s heart.
The fight itself was so epic and intense that Frazier effectively lost his eyesight from the swelling in his face under Ali’s barrage. Even then, Frazier tried to prevent his manager from stopping the fight. Ali didn’t escape Frazier’s blows any better. He later said that bout was the closest he ever came to dying. Still, with the victory, he held onto his championship belt.
These three fights captivated not just the nation, but the world, with their intensity. It wasn’t just about the boxing ring. Frazier and Ali represented two very different approaches to the racism of the time. Ali’s brash sophistication contrasted with Frazier’s quieter personality and lack of formal schooling. And the animosity refused to die for years afterwards. Only in 2001 did Ali apologize for calling Frazier ignorant, and even then, Frazier remained bitter, growing angry when people even mentioned Ali.
If a rivalry is two of the greatest competitors ever hating each other with a venom that lasts for years afterwards, putting out some of the finest performances of all time and transcending their sport in a cultural phenomenon, then Ali-Frazier is a no-brainer as the best rivalry ever.
Contact Greg Hadley at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.