News of Frazier's death Monday from liver cancer hit Holmes hard, he said. Holmes had watched the Thrilla in Manila, the third fight in the Ali-Frazier trilogy, from the second row after fighting on the undercard. He saw Frazier at the top, how he treated everybody. But he also saw how Frazier never lost his bitterness over Ali's verbal barrage against him. Holmes expressed his own anger at how Philadelphia never gave the hometown champ his real due. He hears the talk now increasing for putting a statue up for Frazier.
"For what?" Holmes said. "He didn't see it."
Sitting Tuesday in a new restaurant in Easton, Pa., he is about to open on Canal Street, around the corner from Larry Holmes Drive, Holmes reminisced about Frazier with great fondness. Holmes also had sparred for Ali and called him "a good guy." But Frazier, the sharecropper's son from South Carolina who learned to box in Philadelphia, was more of a kindred spirit, Holmes said. The champ used to pick him up for morning runs.
"I worked with a lot of fighters, a lot of champions - no one ever picked me up," Holmes said. "I'll tell you what, I lagged a lot. Joe was running. He ran like he fought. I was always behind. He waited for me to get to the spot and then we'd take off again together."
After Ali and Frazier split their first two fights, Frazier winning the Fight of the Century in 1971, then losing the 1974 rematch, Holmes didn't know who would take the Thrilla in Manila.
"Back and forth, back and forth," Holmes said. "Ali was dead, walked back to his corner, I thought, 'Joe's going to get him.' Then I didn't know if Joe was dead. Joe was taking a lot of head shots. I thought they were both going to fall out. I didn't know who was going to win. Of course, I was happy that both got paid $5 million or a little bit more. That was the most money anybody had ever seen.''
Holmes knew that Frazier meant to hurt Ali in that fight. The years of taunts had added up.
"Listen, if somebody is going to call you Uncle Tom, ignorant, all that stuff, you want to get him," Holmes said. "Especially when you have a whole lot of people laughing - calling him stupid and all that. Joe wanted to break his jaw. He tried. Ali had a bit too much, you know."
Ali won the fight when Frazier didn't answer the bell for the 15th round. But the bout took a tremendous toll on Ali - and on Frazier, too, Holmes said. He can't know what that one fight did to both men physically over the long term, but he's convinced it was a lot.
"You can't just hit and hit and hit and it don't break," Holmes said. "Something's got to break. At that time, we didn't know about what effect it would have on us. We found out later that it would come to you. Joe's face was all swelled up. He kept icing it down, rubbing it down. And Ali's face was all swelled up, too. I understand why Ali said he felt like he could have died."
Holmes said sparring with Ali had shaped his early fight style. Then sparring with Frazier shaped him in a different way: "Don't take no punches that you don't have to. I mean, it motivates you. You know, you could be the lousiest fighter in the world and you'd get real good overnight by working with Joe Frazier. . . . If me and you are on the same level, I go in there with Joe Frazier, I'm that much higher than you . . . if I've been in there with Joe, you can't touch me."
Holmes knows Frazier never really forgave Ali for those verbal prefight assaults. A couple of months ago, Holmes said, Frazier called him, remembering how Ali used to say Frazier couldn't even talk, imitating Frazier like he had marbles in his mouth. "Now look at him," Frazier told him, referring to Ali's Parkinson's condition.
"Joe tried to let it go," Holmes said. "But it's kind of hard when you've got a lot of people looking at you and thinking of the things Ali said."
Frazier, who died at 67, had gone through tough financial times late in his life. Asked about the word that he had helped Frazier out, Holmes said, "Listen, I'm not helpful to nobody. I like people. If you need a buck, and I can give it to you, you're going to get it. I didn't expect nothing back from Joe. Joe gave me a job, a room. It wasn't about money. I would take something out of my pocket and slip it to him. It didn't matter to me. I didn't think about it. It wasn't a lot - $500, $1,000. 'Man, put that in your pocket.' He'd say, 'No, no, no.' I'd throw it in his pocket. He'd never want to take anything from me.
"It wasn't about the money with Joe. Joe didn't give a [obscenity] about no money from me. You know what? They took his house, they took his [obscenity] gym, they took a car, they took his manhood. They put a [obscenity] statue up down there of Rocky Stallone. He never fought a [obscenity]. Joe didn't get a statue. Joe put a whole lot of money into Philadelphia."
Holmes can't help but get worked up thinking about it. His voice rose, filling the restaurant, empty except for a crew waiting to do a TV interview.
"When people come here, you know what they come for - a drink and an autograph, and take a picture," Holmes said, noting that few become regulars. "When they get their cousin come into town, they come in here. That's the way they did Joe Frazier, and Ali. He's shaking like this much and they say, 'Can I have a picture with you?' But he doesn't say no. Joe didn't say no. I don't say no."
Within their profession, among the men who fought at the highest levels, Frazier, known for rarely taking a backward step, got the utmost respect, Holmes said. He doesn't hesitate to call Frazier one of the all-time greats.
"A lot of fighters are great," Holmes said. "But some are greater than great."
Contact Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @Jensenoffcampus on Twitter.