Tributes continue to roll in for former world heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier who died on Tuesday (08 November). The 67-year old, who succumbed to a liver cancer diagnosed only a month ago, was an exceptional fighter, even among the greats from a golden age of pugilism.
Those three bruising showdowns with Muhammad Ali in the early 1970s, culminating in the epic ‘Thrilla in Manila’ in ’75, weren’t just boxing matches, they were world events in their own right. That final battle in the tropics is often seen as the axis upon which the lives of these two fighters turned.
Joe Frazier was born in Beaufort South Carolina in 1944. In his autobiography, he recalls the events that set him on the road heavyweight championship. His family owned a TV set and their house was where friends and neighbours would gather to watch the greats of another golden age of boxing: Sugar Ray and the two Rockies (Marciano and Graziano).
At one of these gatherings, his Uncle Israel remarked on Joe's stocky build. "That boy there...that boy is gonna be another Joe Louis". That was enough for the young Joe. The next day, he got an old burlap sack and filled it with rags, corncobs, a brick in the middle and Spanish moss that grew on trees all over Beaufort County. He then tied a rope to it and hung the makeshift heavybag from an oak tree in the backyard where the mules were kept.
Following an altercation with a white landowner, Frazier left South Carolina behind at the age of 15, first for New York, before settling in the City of Brotherly Love. Frazier's amateur career saw him take the Middle Atlantic Golden Gloves heavyweight championships in 1962, 1963 and 1964. He went on to represent the USA in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and won the country’s only boxing gold.
Frazier turned professional in 1965 and paid his dues throughout the late 60s. Trainer Eddie Futch came on board in 1966 and honed the fighter’s bob-and-weave defensive style. When Frazier and Ali had met in 1967, Ali was still champion and Joe Frazier had 14 wins all by way of knockout. Ali was characteristically dismissive and maintained Smokin’ Joe would never stand a chance of "whipping" him; not even in his wildest dreams.
Frasier rolls in low, bobbing and coming forward all the time, looking to land that killer hook on the 33-year old Champion’s body
When their first Madison Square Garden encounter was being promoted in 1971, it was hyped as ‘The Fight of the Century’ and it more than delivered on that bombastic billing. Tickets for this Garden showdown were apparently at such a premium that Frank Sinatra had to double up as a Life photographer just so he could get a seat ringside.
Consummate vaudvillean that he was, the Louisville Lip’s pre-fight trash talk saw Frazier being mocked as an ‘Uncle Tom’. Having been stripped of the World Title for refusing to undertake military service in Vietnam, Ali played this card secure in the knowledge that he was still considered by many to be the legitimate champion. Frazier, who was anything but an Uncle Tom, by and large kept his counsel and his cool.
Smokin’ Joe did his talking in the ring that night. For much of the fight, it was in the balance but it was also clear that Ali shipping a lot more leather than he was used to. Joe came forward relentlessly and in the 11th, one of Frazier’s trademark ‘heatseeker’ left hooks took the sting out of Ali and marked the turning tide. It was the same sledgehammer hook that delivered the coup de grace in the 15th.
In Frazier’s own words: “When he went down, we were both dead tired. Fifteen rounds; that’s how long we’d been fighting. And the only thing going through my mind when he got up was what was going through my mind all night: throw punches – just throw punches.” Ali survived the count and he might still have been standing at the final bell but Smokin’ Joe was still the Champion when the scorecards came in. Both men were taken to hospital afterwards.
Frazier lost his title to George Foreman in Kingston in January 1973. After six knockdowns in two rounds, Frazier also lost his undefeated record.
Smokin’ Joe got another tilt at Ali in January 1974 back at the Garden, this time in a 12-round contest for the North American title. As was so often the case between these fighters, a lot of the drama took place outside the ring. The famous TV studio brawl that took place in the run-up to this fight was almost certainly the result of Ali’s constant goading of his opponent. In the end, Ali won on points; ahead on all the judges’ scorecards. But Smokin’ Joe certainly didn’t make it easy and Ali spent a lot of time in a grappling waltz with his nemesis.
Frazier sucked it up, went back to the Gym and found his form again. Later that same year, he fought Jerry Quarry for the second time and decisively stopped the Irish-American five rounds in. Their first outing had been named Ring Magazine’s fight of the year in 1969 and saw the Great White Hope stopped in the 7th.
Meanwhile Ali keeps going for the head and before long, Frazier's eyes are far beyond the help of the cornerman’s iron
March 1975 saw Frazier travelling to Melbourne, to fight Jimmy Ellis, from whom he had originally taken the WBA title in 1970. He knocked the Kentuckian out in nine rounds and that put him in contention for title shot against Ali who’d regained his title on October 30, 1974 by defeating champion George Foreman in "The Rumble in the Jungle" in Kinshasa, Zaire.
The stage was set for the Thrilla in Manila on 1 October 1975. The intensity of this fight still crackles. Watch it again if you don’t believe me. Frasier rolls in low, bobbing and coming forward all the time, looking to land that killer hook on the 33-year old Champion’s body. Meanwhile Ali keeps going for the head and before long, Frazier's eyes are far beyond the help of the cornerman’s iron.
It is often told that sometime around seven rounds in, the two fighters went into a clinch, both taking a respite from the toe-to-toe action. “They told me Joe Frazier was washed up,” said Ali. Frazier replied; “They lied, pretty boy”.
By the 14th they had fought each other to a standstill and in the battle of wits between the two corners. The story goes that Ali was ready to quit but in the end, Eddie Futch, one of the fight game's great trainers, made the decision for his man. “Sit down, son, it’s all over,” Futch reputedly told Frazier. “But no one will ever forget what you did here today."
Ali himself described that fight as the closest he ever felt to death. Certainly the attrition of that encounter changed both fighters and neither ever again recaptured that blazing intensity. "We went to Manila as champions, Joe and me, and we came back as old men," reflected Ali.
Joe Frazier never quite forgave Muhammad Ali for the taunting he had endured during those years of rivalry. The showmanship that coined phrases like “It will be a killa, a chilla and a thrilla when I get the gorilla in Manila,” had a downside for Frazier, who would later tell journalists about how his children suffered the same schoolyard nickname.
For Frazier, there was always going to be unfinished business with Ali and there is a lingering sense that Frazier never quite got the closure he wanted from his opponent.
To give Ali his due, he has been generous in his praise of Frazier: “Of all the men I fought, the roughest and the toughest was Joe Frazier. He brought out the best in me and the best fight we fought was in Manila. Joe Frazier is a good man. I couldn’t have done it without him and he couldn’t have done what he did without me. And if God ever calls me to a holy war, I want Joe Frazier fighting beside me.”
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