By Dan Gelston
With his championship belt and a pair of gloves draped over his casket, Joe Frazier was going one more round.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson asked mourners to rise, put their hands together and for one last time “show your love” for the former heavyweight champion.
Muhammad Ali obliged.
Wearing a dark suit and sunglasses, a frail and trembling Ali rose from his seat and vigorously clapped for “Smokin’ Joe,” the fighter who handed Ali his first loss.
Ali was among the nearly 4,000 people who packed the Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia, where Frazier spent much of his life, for a two-hour “joyful celebration” in honor of the boxer.
He died last week of liver cancer at the age of 67. Also attending were former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, fellow Philadelphia fighter and longtime middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins and promoter Don King.
His body ravaged by Parkinson’s disease, Ali was accompanied by members of his family and wife, Lonnie, who rubbed his back while he was seated and held his hands as he entered and left the church.
Jackson delivered a stirring eulogy, describing Frazier as someone who “came from segregation, degradation and disgrace to amazing grace.”
“Tell them Rocky was not a champion. Joe Frazier was,” he said, referring to the hometown character from the boxing movie, Rocky, whose statue stands at the base of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Tell them Rocky is fictitious, Joe was reality. Rocky’s fists are frozen in stone. Joe’s fists are smokin’. Rocky never faced Ali or Holmes or (George) Foreman. Rocky never tasted his own blood. Champions are made in the ring not in the movies. There deserves to be a statue of Joe Frazier in downtown Philadelphia.”
Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, a catch in his voice, sent a videotaped message of condolence, as did real estate magnate Donald Trump and actor Mickey Rourke.
“We made history together,” said King, who promoted Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle fight against George Foreman, who was knocked out in the eighth round. “We tried to make America better.”
King, wearing an U.S. flag scarf and clutching a mini-flag, walked over to shake Ali’s hand before the funeral; Holmes greeted “The Greatest” when the service ended — with a 10-bell salute, boxing’s traditional 10-count farewell to its own.
Thousands of mourners turned out Friday (Oct.11th) and Saturday (Oct. 12th) for a public memorial viewing at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
Frazier beat Ali, knocking him down and taking a decision in the Fight of the Century at Madison Square Garden in 1971. He would go on to lose two more fights to Ali, including the Thrilla in Manila bout.
Frazier was embittered for years by Ali’s taunts and name-calling, though he recently said he had forgiven him.
Their epic trilogy was recalled not only by speakers at the service but those who sent letters to be read at the ceremony. Rourke got the biggest laugh when he joked about Ali getting knocked down by Frazier — with Ali’s friends and family laughing the loudest.
Smokin’ Joe was a small yet ferocious fighter who smothered his opponents with punches, including the devastating left hook he used to end many of his fights early. That’s what he used to drop Ali in the 15th round of their epic bout at Madison Square Garden.
While that fight is celebrated in boxing lore, Ali and Frazier put on an even better show in their third fight, held in a sweltering arena in Manila as part of Ali’s world tour of fights in 1975. Nearly blinded by Ali’s punches, Frazier still wanted to go out for the 15th round, but was held back by trainer Eddie Futch. The bout, Ali would later say, was the closest thing to death he could imagine.
Frazier won the heavyweight title in 1970 by stopping Jimmy Ellis in the fifth round of their fight at Madison Square Garden. Frazier defended it successfully four times before Foreman knocked him down six times in the first two rounds to take the title from him in 1973.
Frazier would never be heavyweight champion again.