Joe Frazier, the sweet science's epic rival to Muhammad Ali, passed away at 67 from liver cancer. Frazier beat Ali in that legendary fight in Madison Square Garden in 1971. It took him years to come to terms with Ali's taunts, both in the ring and outside it, but before he died, Frazier told the world he had forgiven Ali. Way to go, Smokin’ Joe. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
While it is true that Frazier’s pugilistic career is forever tied to that of his great rival, it is just as true that “The Greatest” will always remain linked to the exploits and the presence of Smokin’ Joe. Frazier commented that he’d heard he would never have been who he was without Ali, but he reminded his interlocutors that Ali would never have been who he was without him either. On hearing of Frazier’s passing, Muhammad Ali told the media “I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration”.
Throughout their careers, the two men fought three times – twice in New York City and once in the Philippine capital for a total of 41 rounds in the ring together. In the Manila fight, after 14 rounds of total warfare, Frazier had to be restrained by his trainer when he was unable to see through one eye. Of that fight, Ali said it was the “closest thing to dying that I know of”.
Ali called Frazier a gorilla, and then tormented him by accusing him of being an Uncle Tom and the mythic Great White Hope in the form of a black man – comments that infuriated Frazier. But despite those remarks, Ali never took his eye off the fact that Frazier was one tremendous fighter. In his best pugilistic form, Frazier stalked his opponents around the ring with a relentless attack, his head low and bobbing, his powerful shoulders hunched, as he unleashed jabs and body blows that set up his opponents for that trademark, devastating left hook.
Describing his own style, Frazier had once told Playboy magazine, “The way I fight, it’s not me beatin’ the man: I make the man whip himself because I stay close to him. He can’t get out the way. Before he knows it – whew! – he’s tired. And he can’t pick up his second wind because I’m right back on him again.” And as for that nickname – in his autobiography, “Smokin’ Joe,” written with Phil Berger, Frazier said trainer Yank Durham had given him his moniker as “a name that had come from what Yank used to say in the dressing room before sending me out to fight: ‘Go out there, goddammit, and make smoke come from those gloves’.”
Frazier won gold at the 1964 Olympics and the held versions of the heavyweight crown from 1968 to 1973, winning 32 fights – 27 by knockouts – with just four losses – twice to Ali in furious bouts and twice to George Foreman. He also had one draw with Floyd Cummings in 1981.
But against all other fights, it was his successful title fight in Madison Square Garden 40 years ago that defined him. When he spoke to reporters about his relationship with Ali just a few months before he died. Frazier said, “I can’t go nowhere where it’s not mentioned. That was the greatest thing that ever happened in my life.”
And veteran boxing promoter Bob Arum told reporters after Frazier’s death, “He was such an inspirational guy. A decent guy. A man of his word. I’m torn up by Joe dying at this relatively young age. Joe Frazier should be remembered as one of the greatest fighters of all time and a real man. He’s a guy that stood up for himself. He didn’t compromise and always gave 100% in the ring.”
While he was an explosive, tenacious fighter, Frazier was actually small for a heavyweight. He weighed in at barely 93kg when he took the title from Jimmy Ellis in 1970 at the Madison Square Garden.
His time as heavyweight champion lasted only four fights, including his victory over Ali, before he ran into the absolutely implacable George Foreman, who floored Frazier three times in the first round of their fight in Jamaica and then three more in the next round before that 1973 fight was brought to a halt.
Two fights later, Frazier and Ali faced off in a rematch of their earlier fight, only this time Ali won the 12-round decision, and then Ali went on to beat George Foreman in “The Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa.
But inevitably Frazier and Ali had to face off a third time and so they went at it yet again, with Ali’s title at stake, in Manila. The fight became legendary for its astonishing ferocity. Frazier landed his fearsome left hook over and over, forcing Ali to backpedal continuously. Regardless, though, Ali retaliated with his left jabs and right hand punches. Even the tropical heat didn’t stop the two men.
Ali famously said to Frazier in the match “They told me Joe Frazier was through,” and Frazer retorted, “They lied,” as he landed yet another left hook on Ali. Ultimately, however, Frazier was fighting blind in the ring and his trainer stopped him from going out for the final round. Ali won the fight.
The “Thriller in Manila” became one of boxing greatest fights, but Frazier only fought twice more after that brutal match, getting knocked out in a rematch with Foreman eight months later, and then on to his final draw in 1981 with Jumbo Cummings. Veteran boxing writer Ed Schuyler talked about the Manila fight some time later and said that “They should have both retired after the Manila fight. They left every bit of talent they had in the ring that day.”
Smokin’ Joe Frazier was born in South Carolina on 12 January 1944. At 16, Frazier moved to Philadelphia after a year in New York City, where took a job in a slaughterhouse – a biographical element distilled for use in the film Rocky.
As an amateur Frazier became the only American fighter to win a gold medal in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, despite fighting with an injured left thumb in the final bout. Turning pro a year later, Frazier stopped his first 11 opponents in a row and within just three years he was in the ring against world-class opponents, beating Ellis in 1970, thereby giving Frazier the undisputed world title for over two years.
Earlier, in March 1968, Frazier had won the version of the heavyweight title recognized by New York and a few other states, defeating Buster Mathis with an 11th-round technical knockout. Meanwhile, in 1970 Ali won a court battle to regain his boxing license, then stopped contenders Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena. The stage was set for an Ali-Frazier showdown, two unbeaten fighters, on 8 March 1971. Each man was guaranteed an extraordinary $2.5 million. The fight became a major cultural phenomenon. Frank Sinatra was taking photos for Life magazine, former heavyweight champion Joe Louis received a huge ovation and Hubert Humphrey, back in the Senate after serving as vice president, sat two rows ahead of Irish political activist Bernadette Devlin, who was remembered as shouting “Ali, Ali,” her left fist held high. Some 300 million watched on television worldwide – before cable and satellite TV. And the 300 million people watched in horror (Myself included – Ed) as in 15th round Frazier landed one of the most perfect punches in the history of boxing, putting Ali flat on both his shoulder blades and smashing his jaw in the process.
As for his presence in Philadelphia over the years, the long-time middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins said, “I saw him at one of my car washes a few weeks ago. He was in a car, just hollering at us, ‘They’re trying to get me!’ At the end of the day, I respect the man. I believe at the end of his life, he was fighting to get that respect.”
Ultimately, of course, it was his fights with and the vicious verbal jabs from Ali that defined Frazier. For much of his life he took Ali’s japes personally, feeling insulted and mocked. That annoyance only grew stronger as Ali evolved into one of the world’s most loved sports figures. After a visibly trembling Ali lit the Olympic torch in 1996 in Atlanta, Frazier was asked what he thought about Ali’s presence, “They should have thrown him in” he said.
In describing the stylistic, cultural and emotional division between the two men, The New York Times commented: “The Ali-Frazier battles played out at a time when the heavyweight boxing champion was far more celebrated than he is today, a figure who could stand alone in the spotlight a decade before an alphabet soup of boxing sanctioning bodies arose, making it difficult for the average fan to figure out just who held what title.
“The rivalry was also given a political and social cast. Many viewed the Ali-Frazier matches as a snapshot of the struggles of the 1960s. Ali, an adherent of the Nation of Islam who had changed his name from Cassius Clay, came to represent rising black anger in America and opposition to the Vietnam War. Frazier voiced no political views, but he was nonetheless depicted, to his consternation, as the favorite of the establishment.
“ ‘Frazier had become the white man’s fighter, Mr. Charley was rooting for Frazier, and that meant blacks were boycotting him in their heart,’ Norman Mailer wrote in Life magazine after the first Ali-Frazier bout. Frazier, wrote Mailer, was ‘twice as black as Clay and half as handsome’ with ‘the rugged decent life-worked face of a man who had labored in the pits all his life’. “
More recently, however, Frazier had mellowed, allowing himself to remember the good from those famous bouts against Ali, rather than just the bad moments in their mythic rivalry. At a 40th anniversary party this year that celebrated his victory over Ali, Frazier was asked if he still felt bitterness towards Ali, Frazier told the gathering “I forgive him, he’s in a bad way”.
But the texture of their rivalry has passed into popular culture. Following one of the debates between Barack Obama and John McCain during their presidential campaigns, a Republican media consultant advised McCain to concentrate on selling himself rather than criticising Obama. The advice: “More Ali and less Joe Frazier.” DM
While we have your attention...
An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.
Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.
Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.
There are more skin cancer cases related to tanning beds than there are lung cancer cases to smoking.