Sugar Ray Leonard Remembers Joe Frazier

Fraizer, the former world heavyweight boxing champion, was known for his crushing left hook, a career of 32 wins and four losses, and his rivalry with Muhammad Ali. Frazier recently died after a fight with liver cancer. Host Michel Martin discusses his life and legacy with Stiffjab.net editor Gautham Nagesh and boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now, we want to take a few moments to remember boxing legend, Joe Frazier. The former heavy weight champion and chief nemesis of Muhammad Ali died yesterday after a brief bout with liver cancer. He was 67 years old.

Known as Smokin' Joe, he and Ali will be forever linked in boxing lure. They rumbled three times. The first, the fight of the century in 1971. The final one, an epic 15 round bout dubbed The Thriller in Manila in 1975. After that fight, Ali said, " It was the closest I've come to death."

For more on the life and legacy of Joe Frazier, we turn to Gautham Nagesh. He is the editor of the boxing website, StiffJab.net. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

GAUTHAM NAGESH: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us by phone, boxing legend, Sugar Ray Leonard. He's a former world champion in the Welterweight, Junior Middle Weight and Middle Weight classes. He also won a gold medal in the 1976 Olympic games and he's now a boxing analyst. And he joins us also. Thank you so much for joining us.

SUGAR RAY LEONARD: Well, thank you.

MARTIN: Of course, I'm going to ask each of you. What made Joe Frazier one of the all time greats in boxing? Gautham, I'm going to start with you and then, of course, champ, I'm going to ask you to pick up that thread. Gautham first.

NAGESH: Of course, Joe is best known for his trilogy against Muhammad Ali, but he was really toughness and grit personified. He developed a style where, essentially, he would let his opponent hit him as many times as they could because they were going to get hurt in response. His direct focus, his determination, his training regimen was famous. He was the inspiration for the training scenes in "Rocky," actually, the pounding the meat, running up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum.

Joe was a blue collar fighter and one that reached greatness and he only lost to Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, which is evidence of just where his stature was in the sport.

MARTIN: Champ, what about you? I understand that his signature punch was a left hook. And what made that so powerful?

LEONARD: Well, Joe Frazier was the epitome of a champion. I mean, here is a guy who was total old school, blue collar, who would fight anybody. You know, he didn't tell you he was the best fighter pound for pound. He'd prove it by fighting the best guys out there and Joe Frazier's left hook was so prominent to me and so important to me that I used to fight like Joe Frazier back in the day.

MARTIN: Let's listen to the call after Frazier delivers his powerful left hook to Ali in the 15th round of the fight of the century in 1971. Here it is:

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPORTS ANNOUNCER: Three, one. He takes the mandatory eight-count. He only knocked down to the fight. Muhammad Ali was flat on his back, but he's a well-conditioned athlete. However, he's real tired.

MARTIN: Sugar Ray, champ, what would it have taken to knock Muhammad Ali flat on his back?

LEONARD: Well, Muhammad Ali is not known to be knocked down. I think Henry Cooper was probably the only guy that knocked him down, a guy from London, and Joe Frazier. I mean, Joe's left hook was such a powerful punch, but most people thought - we all thought, rather, myself included, that Ali was going to win big time.

MARTIN: And he didn't. You know, the other thing I wanted to ask you, champ, is that Ali was famous, not only for, you know, outfoxing Frazier in the ring, but he really seemed to get into his head. You know, outside of the ring, calling him a gorilla and an Uncle Tom. Why did that get into Frazier's head so much?

LEONARD: Well, especially during that time, you know, the race issue was a very sensitive thing, and for Muhammad to use that, it worked well to get into Joe's head. And then people - now, they look back on it in retrospect and say that was too much. But you know what? Back then, Ali didn't mean it that way, but he used it that way, if I make sense with you.

MARTIN: Sure. And, Gautham, Joe Frazier and Ali met in the ring for the last time, as we said, in 1975 for The Thriller in Manila. You know, it's a fight that, in some ways, cemented the legacies of both fighters, but even though - I mean, I think it's fair to say that both men were kind of past their prime at that point. You think that's a fair statement? But it's still considered to be kind of the gold standard of heavy weight fights. Tell us why.

NAGESH: Well, absolutely. As you said, Ali remarked that the fight was the closest thing to death and, if you watch the video even today, the brutality is shocking. It was clear - they always say that the goals of fighting are victory and survival, but survival, in this case, was cast aside, to be quite honest.

Frazier's trainer actually wouldn't let him go out. Eddie Futch would not let him go out for the 15th round. His eyes were completely closed. His face looked like raw hamburger. I mean, it was stunning that anyone would even want to stand up at that point and the trainer ended the fight. Frazier never forgave him for that and Ali collapsed to the ground when he found out he had won.

The idea that human beings have that sort of will in them or determination - I don't even think I've seen anything comparable in any other sport. This was truly two men who cared nothing else more than being the one with his hand raised at the end. And that's why, to this day, I think it is considered the gold standard in terms of heavyweight fights and maybe fighting, period.

MARTIN: Champ, what do you think Joe's legacy will be, Smokin' Joe Frazier's legacy?

LEONARD: Well, Joe's legacy - I mean, boxing - you know, and very seldom do I speak out on boxing negatively, but boxing is nowhere near what it used to be back in Joe Frazier's era. I mean, Joe fought the best guys out there. If you remember, it was from the fight fans that are listening. Back in the day, they said, well, he was the number two contender. He was the number one contender. They don't even use that term anymore. Very seldom do you hear that. In fact, it's not used because Joe Frazier fought everybody and everyone.

MARTIN: Gautham, what about you? What do you think Joe Frazier's legacy will be? And do you think he ever got out from under the shadow of Ali, really, as a public figure and as a boxer?

NAGESH: I wouldn't say that he's in a shadow. That might have been accurate previously, but I think they'll always be linked with each other in history. Great warriors, great combatants. They take someone else to define them, whether it's Borg and McEnroe or Max Baer and Joe Lewis and, in this case, it was Ali and Frazier. They defined each other.

That fight in the Philippines had one other legacy, which was both men sustained such heavy damage that it dogged them into their later lives and I think a generation grew up with those men as heroes, and also very cognizant of the cost that they paid. Some people might say that makes it sad in retrospect, but to me, it's that much more admirable because I think they were aware.

MARTIN: And finally, before I let you go, one of the things I wanted to ask you. You are - forgive me for pointing this out - you're too young to have watched these fights in real time. You would not have been old enough to have seen any of those famous bouts, so what is it that kind of drew you to this and what is it that, you know, makes you see this in such a passionate way?

NAGESH: Sure. Well, I grew up in the era of Mike Tyson as a heavyweight. But even then, if you wanted to know anything about boxing, anyone who knew the sport talked about Ali and Frazier. So we watched those fights and, last year, I actually was fortunate enough to meet him almost one year ago here in D.C. And in my entire career as a reporter interviewing senators, presidential candidates, fighters, that was the one moment I can say I was truly star struck.

MARTIN: Because...

NAGESH: Because this was Joe Frazier. He was more like a mythological hero than a real man.

MARTIN: Champ, a final thought from you, if you would.

LEONARD: Well, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali will always be forever linked to each other and the fact that Joe Frazier - again, I have to use the same term. He was the epitome of a fighter, of a champion, of a warrior. Joe Frazier.

MARTIN: Sugar Ray Leonard is a former world champion in the welterweight, junior middleweight and middleweight classes. He also won a gold medal in the 1976 Olympic Games. He was kind enough to join us by phone.

Also with us, Gautham Nagesh. He is the editor of the boxing website, StiffJab.net. He's also, as he alluded to, a reporter for the daily newspaper covering Congress, The Hill. He was kind enough to join us from our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

NAGESH: Thank you.

LEONARD: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND MUSIC)

MARTIN: Just ahead, when a Texas judge shown beating his then teenaged daughter with a belt went viral on YouTube, some people ask why such a man hasn't been locked up, but others, including the man in question, are asking, what's the big deal?

WILLIAM ADAMS: In my mind, I haven't done anything wrong other than discipline my child after she was caught stealing, and I did lose my temper, but I've since apologized.

MARTIN: The moms take on that now infamous YouTube video and talk about where to draw the line with discipline. That is next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Fifty years ago, dozens of volunteers boarded buses and traveled across the Jim Crow South to challenge segregation in public facilities. They were called Freedom Riders. They were beaten, arrested and jailed in deplorable conditions. So how on earth did they keep their spirits up?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: At night, we sang freedom songs to the men and then they would sing back to us.

MARTIN: We'll hear about one woman's journey as a Freedom Rider next time on TELL ME MORE.

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