Joe Frazier left it all on the canvas

NEW YORK -- Smokin' Joe Frazier became a fighter in Philadelphia and a legend in New York.

He did it on one magical night: March 8, 1971, when Frazier turned in what was arguably the greatest athletic performance ever seen under the gaudy ceiling of Madison Square Garden 4.0, and what was among the top five performances ever by a heavyweight champion in the history of our oldest and most demanding sport.

Willis Reed's entrance in Game 6 of the 1970 NBA Finals might have rivaled it for drama, and some might say Michael Jordan's 55-point game against the Knicks in 1995 matched it for skill, but no athlete has ever owned the big room the way Frazier did the night he won that epic first battle with Muhammad Ali, the one that was so big it was billed simply as "The Fight."

He did it with a body too short and arms too stumpy for a heavyweight, with a style that demanded that he eat two shots for every one he landed, and against a man who was really not a fighter but an exquisitely proportioned and coordinated ballet dancer who happened to carry a brick in each fist.

Frazier was unforgettable that night, giving so much of himself that he spent the next month in a hospital, and for a time there were serious concerns that he might die. He was dangerously dehydrated and his kidneys were shutting down. His blood pressure soared. At the time, no one outside his circle knew that for most of his career, Frazier was an insulin-dependent diabetic.

All the world knew was that few men had ever paid a higher price in the single-minded pursuit of victory than Frazier did that night.

He fought five of his 12 heavyweight title fights at the Garden, and in the 1970s, what we now recognize as the Golden Age of heavyweight boxing, New York was proud to call Frazier our very own house heavyweight.

He won his belt here; proudly carried the title of New York State Athletic Commission heavyweight champion during the years of Muhammad Ali's exile; gave a brutal beating to the tragic Jerry Quarry here; and unified the title by knocking out the skilled Jimmy Ellis, a sort of Ali Lite, at the Garden in 1970.

But the night he put the exclamation point on his title, his career, and his place in boxing history is the one he would savor for the rest of his life.

In 2009, I had what I believe to be the last extended sit-down with a 65-year-old Frazier, at his apartment in Philadelphia on what happened to be the 38th anniversary of that momentous night.

Frazier was ill and hobbled, walking painfully with the aid of a cane due to a recent car accident that had caused spinal damage. His eyes, one of which had been operated on for a detached retina -- an injury he concealed from ringside doctors and fought with several times -- were milky, his speech fuzzy with age and painkillers and punches.

And he was carrying a pain in his heart, having recently gone through a bitter falling-out with one of his daughters over money, a dispute that landed father and daughter on opposite sides of a lawsuit. He was also hurting for money, and the barbs -- cruel racial putdowns -- hurled his way by Ali some 40 years earlier clearly still stung.

So when we got to talking about The Fight, where all conversations with Frazier eventually landed, his eyes glinted. His words suddenly became distinct, even crisp. He sat up straight. It was a moment to be proud of, even four decades later. Behind him on the wall, a huge photograph of him landing the 15th-round left hook on Ali's jaw that sewed up the win loomed like a reminder that this was once a powerful and dangerous man.

"Look at the Butterfly, and look at me," Frazier said, using his favorite nickname for Ali -- whom he had finally been persuaded to stop referring to as "Clay."

"Now, you tell me: Who do you think won those fights?"

For the record, Ali beat Frazier the two other times they met, but neither of those others, not even the celebrated and overhyped "Thrilla in Manila," came close to matching the intensity and skill level both men displayed in the Garden that first time.

I saw the fight live that night, on one of those postage-stamp-sized, grainy black-and-white movie theater screens that people paid to see big fights on back in the '70s, and I've watched it countless times since, in color and high-definition and super slow-mo, forward, backward and sideways.

And every time, I can't help marveling at the speed and power with which these two men traded punches for 15 rounds that night. To this day, sports commentators calling a baseball, football or hockey game will invariably refer to a closely fought game as "an Ali-Frazier fight." It's not only a lazy comparison, but an erroneous one: Neither Ali nor Frazier wore helmets or pads, and neither had the luxury of calling for a substitute, or going to the bullpen, or tapping out.

It was a virtual fight to the death -- Ali wound up in the hospital, too -- and the Frazier you see in the ring that night was a man seemingly willing to die in order to win.

That was the way he fought each and every one of his 37 pro fights, without a reverse gear, and it is no surprise that after that night of greatness, he was never the same. But to knock Frazier for being unable to match the greatest athletic performance ever seen at Madison Square Garden is like criticizing Michelangelo for being unable to sculpt another David.

I did not meet Frazier until about 10 years after that fight, but we got to know each other well over the years. He was the type of athlete, and man, who remembered your name and who you worked for, asked about your family and always made you laugh with his earthy South Philly sense of humor. I never heard anyone refer to him as "Joe." Everyone called him Smoke, and never did a nickname fit so well.

And although he never gave off the vibe of being an especially big man, until his later years there was no mistaking the power in his thick body. He was, after all, the stylistic descendant of Jack Dempsey and the pugilistic sire of Mike Tyson, although neither ever turned in an effort like the one Frazier did that night in the Garden.

He was the real thing, inside the ring and out.

As a kid, I had once weaseled my way into the lobby of the Garden's boxing office because I knew Frazier was in there, signing for what would turn out to be an ill-fated fight with George Foreman at Nassau Coliseum. I got no further than the security guard, to whom I handed a Ring magazine with Frazier's picture on the cover, asking to have the champ sign it.

The man took the magazine inside and came out some 20 minutes later with it adorned with a curiously ornate signature, with a large, looping "J" surrounding the "O" and "E" in his first name. For years, I wondered if it was really his signature or if some kindly factotum had forged it just to get rid of me. (I had read "Ball Four" by that time and knew such things were done.)

Thirty years later, having done a column about an HBO documentary on Ali-Frazier I, to my surprise I received in the mail a promotional poster from the show. On it was a familiar signature, the large curlicued "J" surrounding the "O" and "E," in red ink.

I should have known better than to doubt Joe Frazier.

Muhammad Ali may have been The Greatest, but Frazier was The Bitter Truth, a relentless, inescapable, merciless procession of bad news in short pants and eight-ounce gloves.

On the night of March 8, 1971, the Garden had never seen anything like him. And it probably never will again.