Joe Frazier's Fight for Greatness

The boxing hero's relentless style and epic left hook commanded respect -- and made Ali a legend.

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Joe Frazier's grandson is a classmate of my 10-year-old daughter's. And yesterday she came home and wanted to talk about the boy's sadness. The way he looked, the way he felt, the way he told her to just leave him alone. She was sad because he was sad. I told her to just give him some space, that everything would be OK. Today her classroom will have an empty chair.

As she talked, I started to cry. After all, I know what Frazier has meant to me and many men, black and white, who walk the streets of this country. Now here he was touching me on a very personal level. So I took a moment to be introspective. I told my daughter about who he was. For the first time in my life, I was passing on what my father, grandfather and great-grandfather passed on to me: stories of greatness.

Someone once said, "It is always the punch a fighter does not see that hurts the most." For Joe Frazier, it was his life story.

Whether it was his three decade-long feud with Muhammad Ali or his fight for respectability when it comes to his place in boxing history, Frazier seemed to always be fighting for something. The same can be said for the liver cancer that took his life yesterday at age 67 -- another hero gone before his time.

The reason I say "hero" is that Frazier simply made Ali great. He was an intricate part of what made Ali the iconic figure that he is today. Without Frazier, there's no Ali; their lives will forever be fused together. I hope Frazier died knowing this, knowing that he is, and was, arguably the second-best pound-for-pound heavyweight ever to put on a pair of gloves.

Frazier was one of those rare men who had people convincing themselves night in and night out that the possibility of greatness by punching another man in the face is a risk worth taking. A ghastly risk, but one so pulse quickening that it's likened to the speed of light. The ability to play such a sport at the highest level demands not only poise in the face of impossible obstacles but also the judgment that man is not always right of mind.

For Frazier, the risk of the ring only added to the exhilaration and urgency of the adventure. It was all for a cause. The one chance in life for recognized greatness. The opportunity to tell his grandkids about the accomplishments of his youth.

There's no denying that there were rough times, but in reality he was the consummate pro. He held men accountable.

Frazier grew up mule-poor in Beaufort, S.C., the son of a farmer and bootlegger. He was the last of Rubin and Dolly Frazier's 13 children. He trekked to Philadelphia as a teenager in search of a better life. He brought with him a work ethic baked and hardened under an unforgiving Southern sun.

After finding work in a slaughterhouse, Frazier discovered his true calling: boxing. It was there, in that kosher slaughterhouse, that he trained by tenderizing sides of beef with his sharp left hook.