Joe Frazier, the former undisputed heavyweight champ famed for his epic fights against Muhammad Ali, died on Monday after a brief but brave battle with liver cancer. He was 67.
The family issued a statement confirming Frazier’s death late Monday night.
The boxing icon won an Olympic gold medal in a brilliant career that spanned almost 20 years but he was best known for fighting Ali in a famed 1970s trilogy of bouts, including the epic “Thrilla in Manila.”
He had been under home care after being diagnosed a couple of weeks ago with the advanced liver cancer that took his life, a family friend said.
“I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration,” Ali said in a statement. “My sympathy goes out to his family and loved ones.”
Frazier, nicknamed “Smokin’ Joe,” captured two major heavyweight titles while taking on all comers, including Ali, George Foreman, Jerry Quarry, Joe Bugner, Oscar Bonavena and George Chuvalo.
Frazier was a huge part of the heyday of boxing’s heavyweight division in the 1970s. He finished his storied career with 32 wins (27 knockouts), four losses and one draw.
His four losses came at the hands of just two other legendary fighters from that era: Ali and Foreman.
Multiple world champion Manny Pacquiao heard the news after arriving Monday night in Las Vegas for his title fight against Juan Manuel Marquez on Saturday.
“Boxing lost a great champion, and the sport lost a great ambassador,” Pacquiao said. “My prayers go out to his family.”
British former world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis said Frazier was “one of the best”.
“Without him other boxing heroes wouldn’t be great either because they really tested their talent against him,” Lewis told BBC radio.
Foreman bid farewell to his old rival in a Twitter message: “Good night Joe Frazier. I love you dear friend.”
Frazier was the first man to defeat Ali, with a unanimous 15-round decision in 1971 at Madison Square Garden, in a bout dubbed the “Fight of the Century” that was watched by an estimated TV audience of 300 million.
Frazier’s business manager Leslie Wolff said the fight had passed down through three generations and caused Frazier’s fan base to skyrocket.
“If you look into the history of what took place, there is a lot of emotion,” said Wolff. “When you have a legend, people respond to a legend.”
Frazier and Ali went on to fight twice more.
Ali won a unanimous 12-round decision in a 1974 rematch at the Garden and famously completed the trilogy, winning the “Thrilla in Manila” in 1975 by stopping Frazier after 14 rounds in their epic fight in the Philippines.
Frazier’s trainer Eddie Futch stepped in to halt the brutal slugfest after the 14th round. Futch had to hold back Frazier who could barely stand but wanted to continue the fight into the 15th round.
“Closest thing to dying that I know of,” said Ali after the fight.
For many years after they finished fighting each other in the ring, Frazier remained bitter towards Ali because of Ali’s repeated taunts and verbal jabs.
Ali would often use the words Uncle Tom and gorilla to describe Frazier, but Frazier always tried to take the high road and more recently said he had forgiven Ali.
Frazier won the World Boxing Council and World Boxing Association heavyweight titles in 1970 by stopping Jimmy Ellis in the fifth round of their fight at Madison Square Garden.
He defended the title four times before running into the bigger and stronger Foreman in 1973.
Not as well known as the Ali clashes, but almost as dynamic, were Frazier’s two lopsided fights against Foreman.
Frazier began his career with 29 consecutive wins before suffering his first loss, and losing his heavyweight title, when he was knocked down six times in two rounds by Foreman in 1973 in Kingston, Jamaica.
The two fought for the second time in 1976, with Foreman hitting Frazier so hard with one left hook that he lifted Frazier right off his feet. The fight was stopped in the fifth after a second knock-down.
Pacquiao’s promoter Bob Arum, who worked with Ali, said it was a sad day for boxing.
“He was such an inspirational guy. A decent guy. A man of his word,” Arum said. “I’m torn up by Joe dying at this relatively young age.”
A member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, Frazier was the lone American fighter to win a gold medal at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.
In recent years, Frazier turned to singing, forming a back-up group called the Knockouts.