With the news of Joe Frazier's death, I can't help replaying two of his most famous bouts -- the 1973 bout in Kingston, Jamaica in which Frazier was beaten thoroughly by George Foreman, and the Thrilla in Manila, the legendary conclusion of the Ali-Frazier trilogy in 1975. Looking back at those two matches reveals the best and worst of boxing, the most polarizing of all professional sports.
The "Thrilla" stands as one of the great boxing matches of all time. For 14 (of a scheduled 15) rounds, Ali and Frazier beat the living hell out of each other -- Joe's body blows and left hooks crippled Ali; Ali's jabs blinded Joe. By the end of the 14th, both fighters were done -- Ali, as the story goes, told his corner to "cut off his gloves" as he slumped to his stool, while Frazier's corner told Joe they wanted to stop the fight because of his inability to see. Ultimately, Frazier's camp threw in the towel before Ali's corner got the chance to do the same.
Two years earlier, Frazier, the heavyweight champion, had been utterly destroyed by George Foreman. Foreman towered over Frazier, was younger and stronger. Frazier was knocked down six times in the first one-and-a-half rounds, before the fight was called. In truth, the fight should have never gotten to a second round. Foreman was too strong, and Joe's gameplan was sorely lacking. Watching Joe wobble around the ring, the end nearing, is a sad sight.
Boxing is sport at its most basic -- two men standing toe-to-toe, fighting for their beliefs, for self-preservation and, most significantly, for honour. The beauty is in its simplicity -- no kicks, knees or exotic strangleholds; just arms flailing, heads wagging. The winner is the one who hurts his opponent more -- but survival is a victory in and of itself. In Manila, Frazier survived, even if he didn't win. Joe was always proud of that, and the fact that he wasn't knocked down once in the fight.
But the most basic human competition is also prone to outside interference by the most base human characteristic -- greed. This was the failure in Jamaica; Frazier was overmatched, he never really had a chance. And he was beaten, badly, by the giant Foreman. Watch the fight on YouTube (it won't take long) and look at Frazier after each of the six knockdowns: he is beaten, hurt, out on his feet by the end of it. His corner should have never let him go out for round two -- they must have known he couldn't possibly win, and, worse, that he'd get hurt if he continued. But there were promoters, advertisers, ticket-holders and TV viewers to please. And so the show went on, mercifully only for a few more minutes.
At the end of a great boxing match, everyone goes home happy. The victor because he has won, the loser because he has survived and the fans because they have witnessed a monumental struggle of strength and wits. At the end of a bad match, everyone, including the victor, is embittered -- "What was the point of that?" they all ask.
Therein lies one more reason why boxing is sport at its purest. It is human and inhumane at the same time, pure and polluted, honourable and disgraceful. Boxing is imperfect, just like us.