Joe Frazier: January 12, 1944 – November 7, 2011
32-4-1, 27 KO’s
It saddens me to know that this article started out as a tribute to, rather than a memorial of Joe Frazier.
That being said, as you might have heard by now, earlier today Philadelphia’s own Smokin’ Joe Frazier succumbed to liver cancer while in hospice.
Despite a prosperous, and nearly 3 year reign as the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, at the time perhaps the single most universally regarded of all sports championships; the story of Joe Frazier’s career is one that is often times obscured by the achievements of his contemporaries.
It is also one that is tragically wrought with bitterness and frustration.
As a lifelong fan of boxing, it’s hard to deny that, while undeniably well known and acknowledged by the boxing community; Frazier has never really received the same level of publicity and cultural relevance that he likely deserved.
True, he never had the same transcendent charisma of his nemesis, Muhammad Ali, but the fact remains, even among hardcore fans of boxing, his name was never dropped with the frequency and enthusiasm that one would expect for a fighter of his legendary ability.
Well, outside of Philly anyway.
That being said, as a big fan of boxing, particularly in regards to it’s colorful history; I figure today is as good as any to pick my own brain and share with you all a detailed look at the career of Joe Frazier as I remember it.
Let’s start at the beginning shall we:
If I remember correctly, despite Frazier’s association with the city of Philadelphia as it’s “favorite son,” he was actually born in the town of Beaufort, South Carolina.
Just so you know, adoptive hometowns are not at all a rare occurrence in the sport of boxing, as the New Jersey based Arturo Gatti was originally from Montreal, and on that same note, I believe Marvelous Marvin Hagler of Brockton, Massachusetts was actually from Newark.
That being said, unlike many other fighters, Frazier took to boxing relatively late in life, at the age of 15.
From what I can recall, much like was the case with Mike Tyson, he entered into the sport somewhat overweight.
As an amateur, Joe Frazier only lost once, to future contender and rival, Buster Mathis.
From what I understand, Frazier’s feelings for Mathis were often contentious, not only due to the loss, but because their stylistic differences and training habits were like night and day.
Coincidentally, due to an injury Buster Mathis would later end up abdicating his slot on the 1964 Olympic team to Frazier, resulting in Smokin’ Joe’s first major step to fame and glory in the form of earning a gold medal at the games.
Turning professional in 1965, Frazier cut a swath through the heavyweight division under trainer Eddie Futch, knocking out his first 11 opponents, and defeating notables such as Oscar Bonavena and George Chuvalo, among others.
In 1968, Frazier once again fought former amateur rival Buster Mathis, this time as world class professionals in contention of the New York regional title, a partial championship designed to eventually produce a legitimate champion in light of Muhammad Ali having recently been stripped of his world title.
Fighting in Madison Square Garden, the Frazier and Mathis reached equilibrium early on, trading rounds throughout the first 6 rounds.
Eventually though, as tended to happen in Joe Frazier fights, the tide began to turn, and Smokin’ Joe quickly began to outpace and outpunch Mathis from the 7th round on.
Sure enough, by the 11th round, Frazier punished Mathis down to the canvas, and earned the KO victory.
Frazier would go on to defend his regional title a total of 4 times, besting fan favorite Jerry Quarry during this time.
In 1970, Frazier would challenge for the unified world championship (the real title) against Kentuckian Jimmy Ellis.
Both fighters claimed victories over several common opponents, as well as were possessed of terrific punching power, however after only 5 rounds, Frazier managed to lay waste to Ellis, in a decisive TKO victory that forced trainer Angelo Dundee to throw in the towel for his man, Ellis.
In his first defense of his title, Frazier laid waste to hall of fame light heavyweight Bob Foster inside of 2 rounds.
Following this, in the year 1971, Frazier was set in place to defend his title against the freshly re-licensed Muhammad Ali.
Though it likely wasn’t as well known as it is today, Joe Frazier was instrumental in bringing Ali back to the sport.
Frazier was so opposed to the idea of Ali being stripped of his title, that his initial reaction to the idea of the regional title bouts to crown a champion for the vacant title, was one of disgust and dismissal.
Frazier’s momentum was red hot at the time Ali announced his “retirement,” and it’s well known that he would’ve liked to have fought for the title prior to Ali’s “lost years.”
That being said, Frazier devoted a great deal of time and money towards appealing Ali’s case to commission, going so far as to appeal the case directly to president Richard Nixon; only to ultimately feel betrayed as Ali would go on to publicly berate and deface him once the fight contracts had been signed.
It’s debatable whether Ali’s poor treatment of Frazier was a result of showmanship, or genuine malice, but regardless; his actions would result in Frazier’s lifelong enmity for the Louisville Lip.
Taking his feelings of bitterness and betrayal into the ring with him, Frazier laid into Ali with a fervor befitting of a bout billed as “The Fight of the Century.”
Ali took some of the early rounds with stiff jabs and crackling combinations, however Joe pressed on, landing to the body and building momentum as the rounds wore on.
Both men were hurt numerous times in the fight, with neither man ever seeming to gain a significant lead, that is; until the very last round.
In the 15th round, Frazier uncorked one of the single most famous punches in all of boxing history, a booming left hook to Ali’s jaw that sent him the canvas, literally turning the fight in Frazier’s favor with seconds to spare.
It was a momentous occasion in Frazier’s career, and one that was further sweetened by the judges awarding him the victory just a few short minutes afterwards.
Following the Ali fight, Frazier would go on to defend his title twice more, knocking out a pair of solid contenders.
In 1973 however, Joe Frazier would record his first loss as a professional, against gold medalist and undefeated power puncher, George Foreman.
Using a highly physical and upright style, Foreman walloped Frazier at distance with crushing blows, managing to put the traditionally iron-chinned Frazier to the canvas 6 times within 2 rounds.
Though it was one of the darker moments of his in-ring exploits, it was this fight that ultimately produced Howard Cosell’s famous cries of “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down Goes Frazier!”
Truly, it was one of the more decisive and one-sided occasions on which the heavyweight title changed hands, right up there with Tyson vs. Spinks.
No longer champion, Frazier immediately set to work rebuilding his momentum, winning a tough bout against Joe Bugner in London, and ultimately signing for a second bout with Muhammad Ali.
As a champion, Frazier had fought on a fairly limited basis, and following his catastrophic loss to George Foreman, many felt he was already showing clear signs of decline in his boxing ability at only 30 years of age.
Ali on the other hand, had remained surprisingly active since 1971, accumulating numerous victories, and losses, against notable competition such as a shopworn Bob Foster and Floyd Patterson, as well as a prime Ken Norton.
Despite both men being legitimate, hungry contenders, much like virtually every pay-per-view bout in the current age of boxing, Ali/Frazier II was viewed by boxing insiders as a pointless money play.
Despite this, during promotional events, Frazier remained deathly serious about the contest, evening going so far as become physical with Ali on Wide World of Sports.
While undeniably a less exciting bout when compared to the first and the third in the series of bouts these 2 legends produced, Ali/Frazier II was still a fight that both men should be proud to place on their resumes.
Ultimately, Ali boxed his way to a somewhat disputed decision victory, holding behind the head without penalty on an ungodly number of occasions, and generally doing more to nullify Frazier’s assault rather than directly combat it.
Discouraged but still burning for a second bout with Foreman, Smokin’ Joe Frazier pressed on, once again KO’ing past opponents, Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Ellis.
Then, as fate would have it, Frazier once again found himself in a position to step into the ring with Muhammad Ali, this time for the heavyweight championship.
Since defeating Frazier in 1974, Ali had gone on to achieve what is regarded as one of the finer accomplishments in his illustrious career, that of dethroning the seemingly invincible George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire via 8th round KO.
As was the case in their previous 2 bouts, Frazier and Ali remained at each other’s throats during the pre-fight promotional events.
While many, most of all Ali, viewed Frazier as being well on his way towards being “washed-up,” Frazier sought to prove them wrong as he engaged in what has been well documented as one of the most intense training camps of his career.
In 1975, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier stepped into the ring together for the third and final time in Quezon City of the Philippines.
Fought early in the morning due to international time-zone differences, and at a blistering temperature somewhere between 90 and 100 degrees, the “Thrilla in Manila” has since gone on to be regarded as one of the finest bouts in all of boxing history.
The contest got off to a furious start, and continued at a remarkably expedient clip throughout it’s entirety, particularly by heavyweight standards.
Both men fought their hearts out, laying into one another with reckless abandon.
From round to round, it truly seemed as if both fighters were dead set on leaving everything they left in the ring that day, career longevity be damned.
Ali overextended himself in the early rounds, underestimating Frazier’s tenacity, leaving Smokin’ Joe to take control and batter his body in the middle rounds.
Past the 10th round though, Joe began to tire, and Ali relied more on pure boxing, landing shots at range, and eventually closing Frazier’s left eye in the process.
During the 13th round, Frazier’s mouthpiece came out, causing him to be battered for nearly 2 minutes without a mouthpiece, resulting in numerous cuts opening inside his mouth.
Virtually blind, Frazier was eventually forced to retire on his stool at the conclusion of the 14th round by his trainer Eddie Futch, resulting in TKO victory for Ali.
While few could argue that Frazier was likely the worse for wear, it’s interesting to note that both Muhammad Ali and Angelo Dundee were seriously considering bowing out of the fight at this point as well.
In fact, Ali was quoted as having said that the “Thrilla in Manila” was the “closest he ever felt to dying.”
Despite this, Frazier remained furious at the result, maintaining that he was more than capable of continuing the fight.
Such was the case when it came to Joe Frazier.
Following his second loss to Ali, Frazier would go on to finally get his second shot at a now title-less George Foreman in 1976.
With a shaved head, Frazier stepped into the bout resolute and determined to avenge the most grave of his losses, though ultimately, it was not to be.
Fighting smarter, and more defensively, Frazier evaded more of Foreman’s shots than in their brief first contest, though a single thunderous left hook managed to put him down in the 5th round, with a second down and ultimately a referee stoppage following soon after.
Following this, the 4th and final defeat of his career; Joe Frazier retired, only to resurface some 5 years later in an unexpected comeback against fringe contender Floyd Cummings.
The bout was a rough and tumble affair, earning neither fighter any sort of praise for their efforts, and ultimately resulting in a disappointing draw, the first and only of Joe Frazier’s career.
Following this, Frazier would retire for good, becoming an entrepreneur and trainer among other things.
Regardless of the circumstances, active or retired, one could always count on Joe Frazier to knuckle down and keep on truckin’.
Throughout his career, Joe Frazier was regarded as a fairly slow starter, but one that would press on and eventually get the better of almost anyone you put in front of him.
Relatively small for a heavyweight, Joe Frazier was a swarming pressure fighter possessed of crushing punching power and some of the most ingenious and brilliantly executed head movement in the history of the sport.
Indeed, it was likely his physical deficiencies, in the form a short reach and height, which resulted in him adopting the bulldog-like infighting style he was famous for.
On that same note, it was likely this face-first style that resulted in his prime arriving and fading with the expedience that it did.
Fighting his entire career in what is perhaps the greatest era of heavyweight boxing, Frazier’s long but largely insignificant title reign likely could’ve been a historic reign had he not faced the legendary competition he did.
It’s easy to forget, but in 37 contests, Joe Frazier only lost to 2 men, namely Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.
While both of those men undoubtedly achieved feats equal to, and in some cases, greater than Joe Frazier; it’s hard to deny that any fighter would be envious of suffering defeats exclusively to 2 of the best heavyweights of all time.
Not even Ali or Foreman themselves were fortunate to claim such an achievement, with both sustaining needless losses to middling competition over the course of their lengthy careers.
Indeed, in many ways it’s to Smokin’ Joe’s credit that he saw the writing on the wall and decided to retire when he did.
That being said, Joe Frazier was one of the best, in a time when to be the best, very well may have meant being the best of all time.
For that, among many other events and accolades not mentioned in this article, I will forever remember Philadelphia’s favorite son, Smokin’ Joe Frazier.