Like all 2nd edition characters, the Fighter has a lot less going on than it’s 3rd edition successors. The entire entry in the PHB is barely a page, and the vast majority of it is a chart that shows the types of followers that they can attract when they become 9th level (a “Lord”). The main benefit of the class is the ability to use any weapon and armor and some additional weapon proficiencies. I like that just because the Fighter is allowed to use all the weapons, that they don’t automatically know how to wield every instrument of death that there is. This is a 1st level character, they probably haven’t had the opportunity to use military picks, all swords, as well as the guisarme-glaive and man-catcher. The amount of weapon knowledge that characters have in 3.5 has always seemed a bit ridiculous. A young rogue off the street is trained to use well over a dozen weapons effectively. That seems unlikely.
Reflective of their martial nature, all Warriors (which includes Fighters) have the most favorable THAC0 progression in the game and also have percentile Strength (with an 18 they get bonuses above what a non-warrior receives) and a better hit point bonus from a high Con. I’m fine with all of this. Does it make sense that a Cleric can never be as strong as the strongest Fighters? Not really, but lots of things in fantasy roleplaying don’t make sense, like monks falling from ridiculous heights but not taking damage if they are sort of close to a wall. I really don’t know what that is about. I feel that hurting things through brute force is the domain of the warriors of the game and they should excel at it.
The thing that really sets the Fighter apart from just any old person with a bastard sword is Weapon Specialization, an ability that I feel makes the 2nd edition Fighter superior to the versions in the other incarnations of the game. Weapon Specialization allows the Fighter to be a legit expert with a specific weapon type (it costs two proficiencies, so the Fighter can continue to add to this list as they gain proficiencies, there is no limit to their mastery). It’s also an ability that is only available to Fighters, not their brethren in the Warrior group (Rangers and Paladins). Specialization with a weapon gives the Fighter +1 to attack, +2 to damage, and a significant increase in the number of attacks with the given weapon. Additionally, specializing in a bow also grants the use of a Point Blank category that gives another +2 to hit on close ranged attacks. For example, a 1st level Fighter with a 16 Strength specializing in the long sword is going to have a +1 to attack and a +3 to damage, and also attack three times every two rounds. Chances are that none of the non-warriors in the party are going to have any damage bonuses (in 2nd edition a 16 is needed in Str to get any sort of bonus), nor can they attack more than once a round. This long sword wielder is going to be doing significantly more damage in melee than anyone else. It definitely serves to more clearly define the role of each character type. It you want to have a pretty consistent damage dealer in melee, the Fighter is going to be your man.
I think it would sadden the 2nd edition Fighter to see what became of him in the 3rd edition. In an effort to streamline rules and make multiclassing and customization more accessible, the Fighter lost the edge that he had. (Sure, there is still Weapon Specialization in 3rd but it sort of sucks.) And I’m not even one of those people that feels that the Fighter in 3rd edition is horrible. But because of all the crazy spell options, the rogues sneak attack, classes like the Duskblade and even the Barbarian, the Fighter somehow lost his way as the master of combat and instead became a foot soldier better served to be cutdown by a PC, rather than a warrior of legend. In 2nd edition you can still see the badass that he was meant to be. Or at least a warrior that isn't overshadowed by those around him.