In his superb book, Ghosts of Manila, Mark Kram breaks down one of boxing's most legendary fights, the 1975 "Thrilla in Manila" between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Over the course of the book he presents an interesting argument: that Ali needed Frazier and this fight to cement his legacy as boxing's greatest. Sure, Ali had already shown his technical skill and his superiority over numerous opponents, but it was the challenge of Frazier and the epic scope of this fight that elevated him to the revered status he holds today. Without Joe Frazier, the legend of Muhammad Ali would shine a little less brightly.
In the past few weeks I have found myself reminded of this idea on two separate occasions - first while watching Georges St. Pierre outpoint Jake Shields at UFC 129, and then again this weekend during Manny Pacquiao vs. Shane Mosley. Looking at St. Pierre and Pacquiao, there can be no denying the high level of skill each man possesses. Both inhabit the rarified air of the very elite level in combat sports, and are among the best athletes gracing our sports today. But for each man, right now, something is missing.
Both Georges St. Pierre and Manny Pacquiao need their Joe Frazier.
Now, don't get me wrong, this is not a slight on the skills of either man. In fact, in some ways, it is the exact opposite. Both fighters are so good that they seem untouchable. They've wiped out challenger after challenger and reduced many opponents to fighting to survive instead of fighting to win. But this kind of dominance can only hold fan interest for so long, and for both men, we're seeing those cracks. The GSP backlash has been heating up over the past year of title fight decisions, but it came to a boil after the Shields fight. Most fans decided not to put the blame on the shoulders of the overwhelmed challenger, instead holding up the champion for derision. We're seeing something similar in the wake of Pacquiao vs. Mosley, as fans are frustrated over the one-sided nature of that fight. For now, that frustration is more directed towards Mosley, but how long will it be before Pacquiao becomes the target?
Of course, both men can turn this around, and they can turn it around in just one fight. For an example, look towards another pound for pound top player - UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva. After bursting on to the UFC and laying waste to the competition, Silva was held up to these high standards of greatness. Then came the Cote, Leites, and Maia fights. Like GSP and Pac, Silva was dominant, but fans were angry, prompting numerous tirades against the champion. But Silva found his Joe Frazier, and he found it in the form of Chael Sonnen. Sonnen pushed Silva, forcing the champion into the greatest trouble of his UFC run, and forcing him to show the inner strength that makes him a champion. More importantly, he forced Silva into a great fight for the ages. Silva's last minute triangle will surely be one of the defining moments in his MMA career, a moment of pure excitement.
Ultimately, that is what many fans are missing from St. Pierre and Pacquiao's latest fights - excitement. Both are showing world class skill, but we are starting to ask - is that skill enough to truly be the greatest? Was it skill alone that put Ali on that highest pedestal? Kram says it wasn't, and I agree. Great champions need great challengers. Today's matchmakers need to find the Joe Fraziers that will allow Georges St. Pierre and Manny Pacquiao to display that greatness.