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Larry Merchant Remembers Joe Frazier

By Kieran Mulvaney

Former heavyweight champion and Hall-of-Famer Joe Frazier died on Monday night, age 67. InsideHBOBoxing’s Kieran Mulvaney spoke to HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant, who began his career as a Philadelphia newspaperman, for his thoughts and recollections on the man who was surely the greatest fighter ever to come out of the City of Brotherly Love:

Joe Frazier was simply a terrific fighter. He fought in an all-out, aggressive, everything-on-the-line, pressure style that is rarely as successful as he was with it, at the level to which he brought it. Only two previous heavyweight champions, Jack Dempsey and Rocky Marciano, were as successful in that style, because it’s the hardest style to be successful with. Basically you’re putting your will, your nerve and whatever else you bring in terms of skill against another man’s, and taking the kind of enormous risks that invite disaster. You have to be able to walk through the fire to beat elite opponents. He was one of the rare ones who could do it.

Certainly, a reason he fought that way was his physical stature. I think it’s fair to say that how a man is made physically is a major part of how he fights. Dempsey and Marciano weighed between 180 and 190 pounds, and he fought in the low 200s at a time when heavyweights were getting bigger. He was relatively short, and to be successful, he had to fight in the hardest way there is to fight. Those kinds of fighters, especially when they are successful, are greatly admired. They take the biggest risks and they create the most excitement and drama. It’s a rare ability to be able to dedicate yourself in a way to be able to fight that way, to be able to take the punishment and keep going.

I have always likened fighting Joe Frazier to having an argument with someone who won’t stop talking. How do you answer? How do you reply? You’re on the defensive all the time. In the ring, the instinct for self-preservation often kicks in. When he fought Ali the first time, I called him ‘The Truth Machine.’ He would find out the truth about you, what you really had inside of you. If you were a boxer, did you also have the intestinal fortitude to stay in there with that man and try to cope with this force coming at you? If you were a puncher, were you able to trade shots with him and see who the better man was in that regard?

I would not have remembered this, but someone called me today and read me the lede I had written for the Ali-Frazier fight: “You can’t con Joe Frazier. He won’t allow it.” And if you couldn’t con Joe, Joe also wouldn’t try to con you. I said Joe was a truth machine, and that was the case outside the ring too. He basically told the truth about the way he felt about Ali, whatever the reasons were that he had those feelings. But everyone knew him as a good guy, as much as we can get to know a public figure.

I always thought of him as this fellow whose parents were sharecroppers, who came out of the poorest farm community, and who understood that you reap what you sow in terms of the effort you put into things. He came to Philadelphia to be a fighter, as many others – including, at some point, Ali, did – to learn his craft, and he learned it well.

Somebody once asked me: What would have happened if Frazier fought Mike Tyson? Because Tyson was a guy who tried to fight that same way as Frazier did. And I said the difference between them was that Mike Tyson was a mile wide and an inch deep, whereas Frazier was a mile wide and a mile deep. It seemed that Joe Frazier had a bottomless reservoir of courage, determination and will.

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