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Joe still smokin’ at age 65

Dave Skretta Associated Press

NEW YORK – Muhammad Ali described his third and final fight with Joe Frazier as “death.”

“Closest thing to dyin’ that I know of,” he said.

Frazier recalls their brutal matchup outside Manila as something much less grandiose.

“We just did our job,” he said.

The two great heavyweights always have been the yin and yang of boxing. Why should things change nearly 35 years later?

Now 65 and walking with the use of a cane, the slightly stooped Frazier reflected on the iconic fight in Quezon City in 1975 during a wide-ranging interview with the Associated Press. He also talked about the contentious relationship between the starring characters, which is the subject of the new HBO documentary “Thrilla in Manila” premiering tonight.

“I don’t think Manila was my greatest fight,” Frazier said forcefully.

He ticks off several others in vivid detail, from the Golden Gloves to his gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, to the “Fight of the Century” – when he beat Ali at Madison Square Garden in 1971 to retain the heavyweight title.

“The greatest fight was ’71, when we were all undefeated,” he said. “There was more money, more people. I don’t know why they make this one out to be the biggest fight.”

When it comes to his longtime foil, Frazier is sympathetic to the suffering Parkinson’s disease has caused Ali. But as a Christian, Frazier said, he isn’t surprised by it, either.

“I’m sorry that he is the way he is, but I didn’t have too much to do with it. It was the good man above,” Frazier said. “Maybe I did have a little to do with it, but God judges, you know what I’m saying? We don’t have the power to judge that the man has above.”

Frazier believes that Ali’s arrogant boasts of “I am the greatest!” were “a slap in the Lord’s face,” and that he did the same to his family when he changed his name from Cassius Clay to reflect his Muslim beliefs.

“I respect him as a guy who did a fine job in the fight game,” Frazier said. “I don’t think he really loves me. I didn’t like nothing he done, you know?”

That lingering tension can be traced to their epic trilogy, which turned former friends into enemies and culminated with an event that became as much about politics as prizefighting.

It was the rubber match between two bigger-than-life heavyweights on the decline, Ali having beaten Frazier in their 1974 rematch. Following that bout, Ali regained the title by beating George Foreman in Zaire, the famed “Rumble in the Jungle.”

Frazier was hanging on for one more shot at the title – and one more at Ali.

The animosity that grew over the pair’s first two fights reached a climax when, after the Philippines bout was announced, Ali pulled out a black rubber gorilla and famously launched into a poem: “It will be a killa and a chilla and a thrilla, when I get the gorilla in Manila.”

The fight was scheduled for 10:45 a.m. to accommodate television in the United States, and the morning broke hot and humid.

Thousands of people packed the arena, filling even the aisles, and for 14 rounds the two titans clashed – Ali winning the early rounds, Frazier asserting himself over the middle rounds.

Ali staggered Frazier in the 12th, then again in the 13th, one clean punch knocking his mouthpiece into the crowd. Frazier’s left eye was swollen shut, his right eye closing.

Even though the scorecards were nearly tied, and against Frazier’s objections, his trainer Eddie Futch called a stop to the fight.

While the two men have alternated apologies with attacks over the years, their relationship is still raw.

“I don’t mind people want to think Muhammad is the greatest fighter around,” Frazier said. “Everybody wants to make him great because of his mouth, that he was the best. He was good, but that doesn’t make him great. I proved that.”

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