PASADENA, Calif.–Press tours have many moments, some ridiculous, some sweet, some profound. For me, the defining moment of this tour–despite all the Conan and Cowell nonsense–will be Friday’s session with boxing legends Smokin’ Joe Frazier and Larry Holmes.
The two former heavyweight champions were in the house to promote Facing Ali, a documentary by Derik Murray, a Vancouver-based filmmaker who produced both Making the Cut for CBC and Legends of Hockey for TSN. It is a look back at the career of The Greatest, Muhammad Ali, told by ten of the men who faced him in the ring, including former Canadian heavyweight champion George Chuvalo.
Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to interview many of my idols, and many more who were not, but were fascinating just the same. Meeting Ali 16 years ago in Florida at the 1994 TV Hall of Fame dinner remains my biggest thrill ever. To shake the hand of The Champ, to tell him what he meant to me and then to have him perform a magic trick right in front of my eyes–unforgettable.
That’s a story for another day. Friday, Frazier and Holmes sat and talked about Ali. There was love, bitterness, sorrow, hate, admiration, jealousy, pity–every emotion or sentiment you could possibly imagine, all rolling in waves off the stage of the Langham ballroom.
Charismatic Ali was beloved throughout the world when these men climbed into the ring with him. Yet he had a cruel streak, taunting both men mercilessly. “He wasn’t the nicest guy in the world,” said Holmes.
Ali would call Frazier a gorilla, and, as Holmes reminded us Friday, “you guys liked it. You guys thought it was funny. We didn’t think it was funny at the time.”
Still, Holmes appreciated the fact that Ali played an important part in his life. “Without him, boxing probably wouldn’t have been alive because he had the mouth. He can talk, and he made people like him. He made people that didn’t like him, he made them like him.”
Except maybe Joe Frazier. At one point, Holmes tried to get Frazier to say he loved Ali. The exchange was poignant, theatrical, intimate, meaningful. It was real.
LARRY HOLMES: After I beat Muhammad Ali, you know, I’m the only one to ever really stop him, and I probably could have done it a little earlier if I really put the pressure on him. But when I beat Ali, I went to his room, and my memories is, “Hey, Ali, man, you’re always going to be the greatest in my book, and I love you.” And he says to me, “Why you beat me up, then?”
And that’s what I got, man. When I left out of that room, because he was still making jokes with an ice pack on and everything, “Why you beat me up, then, if you love me?” If you beat me up — you don’t love me if you beat me up, you know. Ali was great, and I loved Ali then. I love him now, and Joe Frazier might say he don’t like Ali, but Joe loves Ali too.
JOE FRAZIER: Love seeing him falling down.
LARRY HOLMES: You love Ali. Come on. Tell the people you love Ali.
JOE FRAZIER: Of course I love him, I mean, because, number one, we were the guys that start off that big purse. I went to the president —
LARRY HOLMES: Not because he gave you $20 million. It wasn’t the money, Joe, was it?
JOE FRAZIER: Yeah, but I love everybody, and let’s say number one. I’ve done a lot for him. He didn’t — I don’t think he likes me.
LARRY HOLMES: Ali loves you, too, because you gave him $20 million too.
JOE FRAZIER: No. He don’t love me. He called me ugly, and I was just trying —
LARRY HOLMES: You wanted Ali to tell you you was pretty?
JOE FRAZIER: Why not?
LARRY HOLMES: He’s a man. A man is supposed to call a man ugly. If you called me pretty man, I would say, “Joe.” [Gesturing with a limp wrist.]
JOE FRAZIER: Please don’t.
After the press conference, HBO officials discretely ushered the two fighters and producer Murray off stage to make room for the next session. The were led into a “green room” behind the stage area, and I scrambled out of my chair in the ballroom and ran around to try and at least shake the hand of one of these champs.
Frazier seemed to age 20 years in the trip from the stage to the green room. He walked slowly, with the aide of a cane, and took his seat in his wheelchair. On his head was a giant black stetson. He brandished the cane in his hand on the way out and did not stop to talk to reporters.
Holmes, on the other hand, was accommodating and friendly. Spotting my name tag, and hearing I was from Toronto, he immediately mentioned the infamous Maple Leaf Gardens fight fiasco “Forman vs. Five” (where then fearsome boxing champ George Foreman took on five fighters in a row). “I was on the under card that night,” said Holmes.
Holmes fight with Ali came in 1980, came when Ali was already sicker than anybody knew. Misdiagnosed with a thyroid condition, he was on a drug that allowed him to enter the ring looking trim and healthy but which really seemed to zap him of any pep. Ali was 38, and simply was no longer “The Greatest.”
At what point in the fight, I asked, did Holmes know he could take him? “When I signed the contract,” said Holmes.
Facing Ali premieres Feb. 15 at 9 p.m. on Spike TV.