Rival Ali leads tributes to ‘great champion’ Smokin’ Joe Frazier

MUHAMMAD ALI, whose captivating rivalry with Joe Frazier defined both of their remarkable careers, last night paid tribute to his former foe, who died yesterday aged 67 after a battle with liver cancer.

Frazier became the first man to beat Ali when he defended his world titles against him in 1971, but he will equally be remembered for his bravery and ultimate defeat to his fellow American in the 1975 fight better known as the ‘Thrilla in Manila’.

“The world has lost a great champion,” said Ali, whose rivalry with Frazier endured for most of their lives. “I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration. My sympathy goes out to his family and loved ones.”

‘Smokin’ Joe’, as he was widely known, won Olympic gold as a 20-year-old at the 1964 Tokyo Games and began his professional career the following year.

He became undisputed world champion in 1970 when he beat Jimmy Ellis, claiming the WBA belt Ali had been forced to surrender for refusing a call-up for the Vietnam War.

The first of three incendiary bouts with Ali took place in 1971, with Frazier’s famous left hook flooring his opponent in the 15th round on the way to a unanimous points win.

It proved to be a career peak, and Frazier lost his title to George Foreman two years later, before resuming his simmering enmity with Ali in 1974.

He lost that rematch but took him on again in Manila, losing one of the greatest and most brutal fights during heavyweight boxing’s heyday in 14 rounds.

Foreman wrote his tribute to Frazier, who retired in 1976 and made an abortive comeback in 1981, on Twitter: “Good night Joe Frazier. I love you dear friend.”

He added: “I hoped I never had to fight him. He wouldn’t back down. If you hit him, he liked it. When Ali and Frazier fought, there will never be a moment in sport like that again.”