How Joe Frazier And Muhammad Ali Went From Friends To Bitter Enemies

As Talk Sport wrote in March of 2021, "50 years on from the 'Fight of the Century,' Ali vs Frazier is still remembered as the greatest rivalry the sporting world has ever seen." Boxing fans will easily recall the infamous feud between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier that reared its ugly head throughout both of their careers. Once upon a time, it was near impossible to name a closer friendship than the one Frazier and Ali shared, but sadly, their bond was hardly resilient enough to withstand the fiery spite they shot back and forth at one another over the years. 

"This guy was a buddy. I remember looking at him and thinking, 'What's wrong with this guy? Has he gone crazy?' He betrayed my friendship. I sat down and said to myself, I'm gonna kill him. Simple as that. I'm gonna kill him," Frazier shared years later while reflecting upon some the cruel personal comments he endured from Ali (via Talk Sport). It's tough to pinpoint exactly where or when their infamous quarrel initially conceived itself, but the first public display of blatant antagonism took place in New York City after the two, who were still close friends at the time, stepped out of a car together before a crowd. As Talk Sports reports, it was Muhammad Ali who drew first blood, and the first cut is almost always the deepest. 

He ain't the champ (?)

In 1963, Muhammad Ali squared off with Sonny Liston in a legendary match that cemented his undefeated title, but by the turn of the decade, the heavyweight champion of the world was taking an involuntary hiatus from boxing after his boxing license was revoked (Ali famously refused to join the Vietnam war effort). While he may have successfully avoided the draft, it was the last blow he would dodge for some time to come. In 1970, Joe Frazier had usurped him as heavyweight champ, and despite Ali's notorious reputation for being competitive and grandiose, they managed to maintain a friendship. According to Talk Sport, Frazier and Ali were riding together from Philadelphia to New York, jesting as friends do and discussing the prospect of getting the latter's license reactivated. However, once they arrived at their destination, Muhammad Ali's inclination toward prideful outbursts got the better of him.

Upon stepping out of the vehicle, Ali turned to a gathering crowd of fans and members of the press and exclaimed, "It's Joe Frazier, ladies and gentlemen! 'Smokin' Joe'! There he is! He's got my title! I want my title! He ain't the champ, he's the chump! I'm the people's champ!" Frazier reportedly didn't take the knock too personally and boiled it down to his friend creating a public buzz that might prompt the reinstatement of his boxing license. It worked, but Ali wasn't done spewing sharp words at his friend (per Talk Sport).

Joe Frazier's family and personal life suffered

Once Ali was reissued his boxing license and a match between him and Frazier (above) had been set for March of 1971, he decided to resurrect some of those unsavory attitudes and statements he made before spectators when he mocked his friend and refuted his title the year prior. This time, however, he upped the caliber of his verbal assaults. Ali reportedly started calling Frazier "Uncle Tom" and angrily remarked on his (as he saw it) brittle devotion to fellow members of the Black community (via Talk Sport).

Talk Sport reports that Ali's remarks were detrimental enough to prompt various death threats toward Frazier, whose children endured ruthless bullying while at school. "He called me an Uncle Tom. For a guy who did as much for him as I did, that was cruel. I grew up like the Black man, he didn't. I cooked the liquor. I cut the wood. I worked the farm. I lived in the ghetto," Frazier declared in his own defense. Ali admittedly felt betrayed at his friend's refusal to acknowledge his name change after he joined the Muslim community and denounced what he referred to as his "slave name," Cassius Clay. 

The Fight of the Century

It was on March 8, 1971 when Ali and Frazier faced off at Madison Square Garden after Ali's extensive absence from the boxing world. The match between the two Olympic gold medal winners still reigns supreme as the "The Fight of the Century," and after three-and-a-half years of nothing but Ali's ghost stalking the rings, fans were ravenous for his grand return to the timeless sport. (Even the likes of Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra were in attendance, as History reports.) In the 15th round, after planting a tactful left hook into Ali's chin, Frazier knocked the (up until then) undefeated fighter to the ground and maintained his title as world champ by ruling of a decision. It was a titanic showdown and the first of three matches between the two venerated boxers that would go down in sports history (per History).

While the Fight of the Century may have been over, bigger and more personal battles between Ali and Frazier were accelerating. The former undefeated champion of the world was adjusting to his new reality, and in the midst of it all, he continued to throw jabs and provocation at Frazier in the form of nasty public remarks (via Boxing News Online).

Showdown at ABC Studios

Seemingly against all odds, Ali and Frazier managed to mend the pillars of their broken friendship and became cordial with one another once again. There were periods of peace throughout the years that were punctuated by long bouts of resentment, and it only got worse and worse every time. However, in 1974, the waters were calm and the pair's second match was close upon the horizon. On January 23 (five days before the fight), Ali and Frazier visited ABC Studios for an interview with TV host Howard Cosell. Before a live studio audience, the pair watched their previous fight from 1971 and provided commentary on the footage. About halfway through, Ali started making scathing remarks about Frazier's performance and called him "ignorant," at which point the latter stood up and moved toward his opponent in a fit of reactive rage (per Talk Sport). 

The exchange got physical and the two fighters wound up rolling around on the ground trying to overpower one another as multiple bystanders — including Ali's own brother — tried to tear them off of one another. Alas, the two were once again enemies. (You can watch the infamous segment on YouTube. On January 28, 1974, Ali beat Frazier in their long-awaited rematch at Madison Square Garden, as ESPN Classic reports. The third fight in the trilogy took place in the Philippines in 1975, and after 14 blood-splattered rounds, Ali took home a second victory. The contest was so brutal that at one point, Ali said to his fight doctor, "This must be what dyin' is like" (per Sports Illustrated).

Did Ali and Frazier ever reconcile?

Tensions between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fluctuated up until the latter's death in 2011. According to Talk Sport, the two shared several interactions in the years after their third fight, and despite Ali's efforts to establish some sense of harmony, there were things that Frazier was evidently unable to move past. Hana Ali recalled one interaction that left a lasting effect upon her father: "I remember being at an autograph signing and Joe Frazier was there. I remember my father was so excited to see Joe Frazier he started jumping up and down, 'Come on Joe, let's play, show off for the cameras.' Joe Frazier just put his hand up and went, 'Pssht,' and kept on walking.'" Apparently, Frazier's dismissive gesture hurt Ali so deeply, it brought him to tears right then and there.

Sports Illustrated reports that after Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in the mid '90s, Joe Frazier made several public statements proudly taking credit for his former friend's ailment, proclaiming that it was his own thunderous punches that incited it. He regretted those remarks later on and expressed sincere sympathy: "It's just sad because he's a great guy and I'm hoping that maybe he could live the kind of life that we live. I'd love to see him do that. Because he earned that." As Talk Sport reports, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier eventually managed to reach a general state of atonement before saying goodbye to one another forever.