Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 10, 2011

Remembering Smokin’ Joe

There was much more to Joe Frazier’s life than his career as a boxer; just as there was much more to his career than his rivalry with Muhammad Ali. The youngest of twelve children born to impoverished farm workers in South Carolina, Frazier dropped out of school at 13 and went to New York to live with a brother two years later. A year later he was in Philadelphia, which became home for the remainder of his life. But Frazier never forgot his family or his roots. One of his first acts after consolidating the heavyweight title was to return to South Carolina to buy land on which to build his mother a new home. Throughout his life he was generous with family and friends, often to a fault. Long after his career in the ring was over, he owned and managed a gym, passing on his knowledge and experience to generations of young men hoping for a career in the ring.

In Philadelphia he found his first trainer, Yank Durham. It was Durham who would tell the New York Times after Frazier became the heavyweight champion that “I’ve had plenty of other boxers with more raw talent, but none with more dedication and strength.” By age 20 Frazier was winning the Olympic Gold Medal at the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo. A year later he turned pro.

As a professional boxer Frazier climbed into the ring 37 times. On only four of those occasions did he leave a beaten fighter. In both victory and defeat his career had plenty of memorable moments. There was a 5th round TKO of Dick Wipperman in March 1966, Frazier’s first appearance at Madison Square Garden. Almost exactly three years later he was back at the Garden, stopping Buster Mathis in 11 rounds to claim his first piece of the fragmented heavyweight crown. Two years after that Frazier added the WBC and WBA titles when he pummeled Jimmy Ellis, winning a TKO after just 4 rounds of a scheduled 15 rounder. For an equally dramatic fight with a different outcome, there was of course his first match against George Foreman in January 1973. It was there in Kingston, Jamaica that Howard Cosell made his famous call when the towering Foreman sent Frazier to the canvas for the first of three times in the very first round. “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” The first Foreman fight was the 30th of Frazier’s career, and his first loss.

But the inescapable truth is that Frazier will be remembered not for the aspects of his life outside of the ring, nor for whatever drama or glory was contained in 34 of his 37 bouts. For he is forever linked to Ali, their rivalry defined by three historic contests in the ring and fueled by the stark contrast between the two. Ali the charismatic and quotable one; Frazier the working man of few words. In the ring Ali danced and jabbed; Frazier bulled his way straight forward with punishing blows to the body. Set against each other in a trilogy of bouts, they formed a union that transcended either man, a pugilistic duet with its own deserving chapter in boxing history.

In March 1971 Frazier had consolidated the heavyweight crown and Ali was eight months clear of having won the right to fight again after being stripped of his crown in 1967 for refusing the draft. Each was guaranteed a then-record $2.5 million for what was billed as the “Fight of the Century.” With an estimated 300 million watching worldwide, Ali dominated the early rounds. But Frazier’s body blows eventually began to take their toll and by the end of the 14th round the champ led on all three scorecards. Early in the final round a massive left hook from Frazier caught Ali cleanly on the jaw, knocking him down and sealing the victory. For Frazier, it was the biggest win of his career.

By January 1974 Frazier had lost his title to Foreman, so Ali-Frazier II was a non-title bout. At stake was a chance to fight Foreman for the title. This time Ali danced through the early rounds once again, but then changed tactics and moved into tight clinches with Frazier through the remainder of the 12 round bout. While referee Tony Perez repeatedly warned Ali about holding Frazier, he never issued a penalty or took points away. The clinches and close quarters limited the effectiveness of Frazier’s shots to the body. In the end, Ali won a unanimous decision and evened the score between the two.

It was more than a year and a half later before the two would meet again. In the interim Ali had defied the odds and rope-a-doped Foreman into submission on a hot African night to reclaim the world championship. Promoter Don King, who shot to prominence with the Ali-Foreman fight, put together the “Thrilla in Manila,” held on October 1, 1975. The bell for round one rang at 10:45 a.m. local time to accommodate international television audiences. Much as had been the case in their first contest, Ali dominated the early rounds only to see Frazier begin a relentless assault through the middle part of the fight. But just when it seemed certain that Frazier would go on to win this rubber match, he began to tire. At the same time Ali reached deep into some personal reservoir of sheer will and forced his weary legs to dance one more time. A series of blows to the face in the 11th caused Frazier’s eyes to swell. By the 12th Frazier’s left eye was nearly shut, and Ali punished him with rights that Frazier couldn’t see coming. In the 13th another Ali combination sent Frazier’s mouth guard flying into the seats. By the end of the 14th round, Frazier was essentially fighting blind, and trainer Eddie Futch did what he had to do, stopping the contest.

Frazier lost the fight, but the drama of that brutal third encounter between the two cemented the rivalry’s place as legend. Ali would characterize that fight as the closest thing to death. He also praised his foe, saying “I’m gonna tell ya, that’s one hell of a man, and God bless him,” and, “He is the greatest fighter of all times, next to me.” Joe Frazier is gone now, a too-young victim of an insidious disease. But in the mind’s eye he will live forever; always in the ring, always facing Ali. Two of the greatest practitioners of the sweet science ever to climb between the ropes; evenly matched combatants for eternity.

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