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Boxing legend Joe Frazier, who had a cameo in Rocky and later said he was the inspiration for the iconic scenes where Sylvester Stallone is seen running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, died Monday night in Philadelphia after a brief battle with liver cancer. He was 67.
Frazier won the Olympic heavyweight boxing gold medal for the U.S. in 1964 and held the world heavyweight boxing crown from 1970-73, but he is perhaps best known for his three epic fights with Muhammad Ali.
Rocky featured a character named Apollo Creed, who was influenced by Ali. But in a 2008 interview with the Guardian, Frazier noted that he inspired two of the Oscar-winning 1976 movie’s most iconic scenes.
After moving from Harlem to Philadelphia, Frazier ended up working at a slaughterhouse.
“I was the drain man. My job was to make sure the blood went down the drain,” he said. “But sometimes, early in the morning, I’d go down that long rail of meat and work on my punching. That’s how Stallone got the same idea for Rocky — just like he used the story about me training by running up the steps of the museum in Philly.”
But Frazier said he never earned a cent from the backstory.
“He never paid me for none of my past,” the boxer said. “I only got paid for a walk-on part. Rocky is a sad story for me.”
During their battle — nearly to the death — they traded punches with a fervor that seemed unimaginable among heavyweights. Frazier gave almost as good as he got for 14 rounds, then had to be held back by trainer Eddie Futch as he tried to go out for the final round, unable to see.
Ali was as merciless with Frazier out of the ring as he was inside it. He called him a gorilla, and mocked him as an Uncle Tom. But he respected him as a fighter, especially after Frazier won a decision to defend his heavyweight title against the then-unbeaten Ali in a fight that was so big Frank Sinatra was shooting pictures at ringside, Burt Lancaster was supplying the color commentary, and both fighters earned an astonishing $2.5 million.
“They told me Joe Frazier was through,” Ali told Frazier at one point during the Manila fight.
“They lied,” Frazier said, before hitting Ali with a left hook.
Finally, though, Frazier simply couldn’t see and Futch would not let him go out for the 15th round. Ali won the fight while on his stool, exhausted and contemplating himself whether to go on.
“Closest thing to dying that I know of,” Ali said afterward.
It was one of the greatest fights ever, but it took a toll. Frazier would fight only two more times, getting knocked out in a rematch with George Foreman, eight months after losing his heavyweight title to the boxer, before coming back in 1981 for an ill-advised fight with Jumbo Cummings.
Frazier also appeared in a series of Miller Lite commercials during the late 1970s and early ’80s.
Though slowed in his later years and his speech slurred by the toll of punches taken in the ring, Frazier was still active on the autograph circuit in the months before he died. In September, he went to Las Vegas, where he signed autographs in the lobby of the MGM Grand hotel-casino shortly before Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s fight against Victor Ortiz.
He also recorded a few albums and did classic soul and R&B hits with his group, the Knockouts. He had performed as recently as June at the Las Vegas Hilton.
Born in Beaufort, S.C., on Jan 12, 1944, Frazier took up boxing early after watching weekly fights on the black and white TV on his family’s small farm. He was a top amateur for several years and became the only American fighter to win a gold medal in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo despite fighting in the final bout with an injured left thumb.
After turning pro in 1965, Frazier quickly became known for his punching power, stopping his first 11 opponents. Within three years he was fighting world-class opposition and, in 1970, beat Ellis to win the heavyweight title that he would hold for more than two years.
It was his fights with Ali, though, that would define Frazier. Though Ali was gracious in defeat in the first fight, he was as vicious with his words as he was with his punches in promoting all three fights — and he never missed a chance to get a jab in at Frazier.
Frazier, who in his later years would have financial trouble and end up running a gym in his adopted hometown of Philadelphia, took the jabs personally. He felt Ali made fun of him by calling him names and said things that were not true just to get under his skin. Those feelings were only magnified as Ali went from being an icon in the ring to one of the most beloved people in the world.
After a trembling Ali it the Olympic torch in 1996 in Atlanta, Frazier was asked by a reporter what he thought about it.
“They should have thrown him in,” Frazier responded.
He mellowed, though, in recent years, preferring to remember the good from his fights with Ali rather than the bad. Just before the 40th anniversary of his win over Ali earlier this year — a day Frazier celebrated with parties in New York — he said he no longer felt any bitterness toward Ali.
“I forgive him,” Frazier said. “He’s in a bad way.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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