Back in the States, Ali called Lewis and asked him for Frazier's private number. Ali told Lewis that he wanted to apologize to Frazier for some of the things he had said. Lewis called Frazier, but, he says, Frazier told him. "Don't give it to him."
In the 21 years since then, Ali and Frazier have seen each other at numerous affairs, and Frazier has barely disguised the loathing he feels toward his old antagonist. In 1988, for the taping of a film called Champions Forever, five former heavyweight title holders—Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Larry Holmes and Ken Norton—gathered in Las Vegas. A crowd of people were at Johnny Tocco's Gym for a morning shoot when Frazier started in on Ali, who was already debilitated by Parkinson's. "Look at Ali," Frazier said. "Look what's happened to him. All your talkin', man. I'm faster than you are now. You're damaged goods."
"I'm faster than you are, Joe," Ali slurred. Pointing to a heavy bag, Ali suggested a contest: "Let's see who hits the bag the fastest."
Frazier grinned, not knowing he was back in the slaughterhouse. He stripped off his coat, strode to the bag and buried a dozen rapid-fire hooks in it, punctuating each rip with a loud grunt: "Huh! Huh! Huh!" Without removing his coat, Ali went to the bag, assumed the ready stance and mimicked one Frazier grunt: "Huh!" He had not thrown a punch. He turned slowly to Frazier and said, "Wanna see it again, Joe?" In the uproar of hilarity that ensued, only Frazier did not laugh. Ali had humiliated him again.
After the shoot, at a luncheon for the fighters, Frazier had too much to drink, and afterward, as people milled around the room and talked, he started walking toward Ali. Thomas Hauser, Ali's chronicler, watched the scene that unfolded over the next 20 minutes. Holmes quietly positioned himself between Ali and Frazier. "Joe was trying to get to Ali," Hauser says, "but wherever Joe went, left or right, Holmes would step between him and Ali. Physically shielding him. Joe was frustrated. After about 10 minutes of this, Foreman walked up to Larry and said, 'I'll take over.' " So for the next 10 minutes Frazier quietly tried to get around 290 pounds of assimilated Big Macs. At one point Frazier leaned into Foreman, but Foreman only leaned back. "Keep it cool, Joe," Foreman whispered. "Be calm."
Ali had no idea this was going on. "He was walking around like Mr. Magoo," says Hauser. "He was oblivious."
While Frazier's hostility toward Ali was well known to the fight crowd, it was not until his book came out last spring that he look his venom public. When Phil Berger, who wrote the book, began interviewing Frazier last fall and heard what he wanted to say about Ali, he warned Frazier of the damning impact it would have. "Ali's become like a saintly figure," Berger said.
Too bad, the fighter replied. "That's the way I feel."
With his book and his unseemly harangue against Ali at the Olympics, which had the strong whiff of envy, Frazier may have done himself irreparable damage among the legions who have admired him steadfastly. What he wants from Ali is an apology for those long years of vilification—the apology he did not want to hear when Lewis called him on Ali's behalf after Manila.
Ali has expressed contrition more than once for the things he said. In Hauser's 1991 oral history Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, Ali says, "I'm sorry Joe Frazier is mad at me. I'm sorry I hurt him. Joe Frazier is a good man. I couldn't have done what I did without him, and he couldn't have done what he did without me."