By Arturo R. García
Joe Frazier was mourned Monday night, following his death at age 67. And I can’t help but feel that, this time a little more than many, there was the sense that it came too late. Because at any other time, the story of “Smokin’ Joe” – the world heavyweight boxing champion in a time when being so still marked one as The Baddest Man On The Planet – could have marked him as a hero in a decade that sorely needed them. Instead, his defining moments in the era saw him cast as the villain, a role he would sometimes embrace all too well in later years.
For it was Frazier’s luck to run into Muhammad Ali at the height of Ali’s oratory powers. Suddenly Frazier’s American Dream was painted as a staid product of the Establishment, and no one in sports made a career out of defying that like Ali, and the three fights between them, for better and worse, followed Frazier for the rest of his life.
Mr. Frazier’s signature weapon was a destructive left hook, which he used to win his first title in 1968 and floor Ali in their first meeting in 1971. He developed his powerful left as a young child, growing up without electricity or plumbing in rural Beaufort, S.C. His father had lost his left arm in a shooting over a mistress, and young Joe became his father’s left arm.
“When I was a boy, I used to pull a big cross saw with my dad. He’d use his right hand, so I’d have to use my left,” Mr. Frazier once said. After watching boxing on TV with his father, he filled a burlap sack with a brick, rags, corncobs, and moss, then hung it from a tree.
“For the next six, seven years damn near every day I’d hit that heavy bag for an hour at a time,” he wrote in his 1996 autobiography.
At age 15, Mr. Frazier moved north to New York and then Philadelphia, where he found work at Cross Bros. Meat Packing Co. in Kensington. He began training in a Police Athletic League gym, won three national Golden Gloves titles, and then a gold medal at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.
– Don Steinberg, Philadelphia Inquirer
Their first bout, on March 8, 1971, at New York’s Madison Square Garden, was one of the most significant fights in boxing history and one of the most famous sporting events of the 20th century. They were undefeated champions when they met in what was simply called “The Fight.” Frazier had won a tournament to claim the title that had been stripped from Ali when the latter refused induction into the military during the Vietnam War and was banished from boxing for 3½ years. Because he hadn’t lost his title in the ring, Ali was still considered by many to be the legitimate champion.
And even though Ali would get the better of Frazier in their storied rivalry, it was Frazier who won the first fight — the biggest of them
all — dropping Ali with his trademark left hook in the 15th and final round and winning a unanimous decision to claim the undisputed championship.
The victory marked the height of Frazier’s career, which he concluded with a record of 32-4-1 with 27 knockouts.
“If Joe Frazier would have fought King Kong, he would have knocked him out that night,” Gene Kilroy, a friend of both fighters who later managed Ali’s business affairs, told The Associated Press. “Nothing was going to stop Joe Frazier.”
– Dan Rafael, ESPN
Right up until the bell rang for Round One, Ali was dead certain that Frazier was through, was convinced that he was no more than a shell, that too many punches to the head had left Frazier only one more solid shot removed from a tin cup and some pencils. “What kind of man can take all those punches to the head?” he asked himself over and over. He could never come up with an answer. Eventually, he dismissed Frazier as the embodiment of animal stupidity. Before the bell Ali was subdued in his corner, often looking down to his manager, Herbert Muhammad, and conversing aimlessly. Once, seeing a bottle of mineral water in front of Herbert, he said, “Watcha got there, Herbert? Gin! You don’t need any of that. Just another day’s work. I’m gonna put a whuppin’ on this nigger’s head.”
Across the ring Joe Frazier was wearing trunks that seemed to have been cut from a farmer’s overalls. He was darkly tense, bobbing up and down as if trying to start a cold motor inside himself. Hatred had never been a part of him, but words like “gorilla,” “ugly,” “ignorant” — all the cruelty of Ali’s endless vilifications — had finally bitten deeply into his soul. He was there not seeking victory alone; he wanted to take Ali’s heart out and then crush it slowly in his hands. One thought of the moment days before, when Ali and Frazier with their handlers between them were walking out of the Malacaûang Palace, and Frazier said to Ali, leaning over and measuring each word, “I’m gonna whup your half-breed ass.”
– Mark Kram, Sports Illustrated
Frazier retired after his next fight — when he was knocked out by [George] Foreman in the fifth round in 1976. He came out of retirement five years later for one fight, a draw with a former convict, Floyd “Jumbo” Cummings, and finished his career with a 32-4-1 record and 27 knockouts.
Frazier lives in Philadelphia, owns and runs a gym there. His health is not the best as he has diabetes and high blood pressure. He and his nemesis have alternated between public apologies and public insults.
One exchange came in 2001 after Ali told The New York Times he was sorry for what he said about Frazier before their first fight. At first, Frazier accepted the apology, but then …
“He didn’t apologize to me — he apologized to the paper,” Frazier said in a June issue of TV Guide. “I’m still waiting [for him] to say it to me.”
Ali’s response: “If you see Frazier, you tell him he’s still a gorilla.”
– Mike Sielski, ESPN Classic
“Frazier beat Ali in the greatest of their fights, but Ali transcended boxing more than any other fighter,” said John DiSanto, who has created a home for Philadelphia’s rich pugilistic history at PhillyBoxingHistory.com. “It doesn’t take anything away from Frazier, but Ali is a different type of a figure. He resonated with people all over the world.”
Men mellow with age, but bridges were burned, and Ali’s overriding fame always seemd to eat at Smokin’ Joe. Until recently, it seems.
“Nobody has anything but good things to say about Muhammad now,” Frazier said. “I’d do anything he needed for me to help.
“I can’t fight the whole world or the whole city by myself.”
– Christopher Wink, Sports Illustrated