Some Thoughts on Smokiní Joe Frazier

01.08.06 - By Stuart Cornwell: Joe Frazier was a ferocious heavyweight. He put some serious hurt on his opponents. Tough opponents too. When Frazier was in his prime he would not enter the ring to merely outbox the other man. Nor was his aim to simply score the knockout. He was there to inflict pain and to destroy a manís soul. To break a man down, not only physically but spiritually and emotionally.

There was more than a hint of meanness to Smokiní Joe but he was no bully. He gave no quarter and expected none in return. His own pain he met with a grin not a grimace. He seemed to relish a tough fight more than any easy one. To my mind there is no doubt that Joe Frazier was willing to die in the prize ring. Let us not forget what he did to the undefeated Muhammad Ali when they met in Madison Square Garden in the aptly billed ďFight of the CenturyĒ (March 8, 1971). He took the fight to Ali for 15 rounds, administering a thorough beating to the self-proclaimed ďGreatestĒ, and walking through some of the best shots Ali could throw.

Dozens of them, hundreds perhaps. And yet firing back with the more hurtful blows and always pressing forward, forcing the fight. It is a testament to Aliís toughness that he survived until the final bell. Twice Frazier had him on the verge of being knocked out.Over the next five years the two men met twice more and each time it was Muhammad Ali who emerged victorious. But neither of the Ali-Frazier sequels compare to the original. Both men were younger and in better shape in that first fight. Both men were undefeated. The action was a lot sharper.

The second fight, again in The Garden, saw Frazier plodding forward with less spring in his step and less venom in his fists, with Ali wrestling and clinching, jabbing and grabbing his way to victory in a relatively dull twelve round fight with no championship at stake. The high drama returned for their third fight, staged in the Phillippines, the so-called ďThrilla In ManilaĒ. It was as brutal and as gruelling as the original but it was essentially a fight between two fatter, slower, older versions of the same men. While they managed to crank up just as much intensity, they were unable to complement their competitive spirits and warriorsí hearts with the skills and tools they had possessed just a few years earlier. They were over-the-hill.

The first fight is where Ali-Frazier is at.After that fight (his first with Ali), Frazier was never the same again. His conditioning seemed to take a sharp turn for the worse. Frazier was not at his best when he had that soft look to his physique. His style relied on super-human levels of stamina and quick bobbing-and-weaving head movements, and the ability to crowd and pressure his opponent for a full three minutes every round. After the win over Ali, instead of weighing in for contests at his ideal fighting weight of 204 or 205 he regularly came into fights a flabby-looking 215. Maybe it was age, maybe it was weariness. But the flab just did not seem to come off. Against George Foreman in Jamaica in 1973 he entered the ring looking less like a fiercely honed gladiator and more like a holidaying tourist. Plodding straight into his immensely powerful rival he was sent to the canvas six times in two rounds in what is certainly the worst result on his professional record.

There is no doubt that George Foreman was a great fighter and at the peak of his powers when he took the title away from Frazier so emphatically that day (January 22, 1973) in Kingston, Jamaica. Foreman was one of the strongest and most powerful fighters in the history of boxing, a great fighter in his own right. But I do think a 205 pound determined Frazier, at the absolute peak of his fitness and keenly concentrating on his head movement and attacking on the balls of his feet (ie. the fighter he had been just a few years earlier) could have dismantled Foreman. I will not say he certainly would have because I think on his very best day George Foreman could have knocked out any man too.

Suffice to say, the one-sided Foreman-Frazier championship fight we did see was not a match between the two men at their respective bests. Joe Frazier, despite being favourite going in to the fight, was quite evidently light years away from his best.Frazier's decline may have been in part due to his legendary style of fighting and training. From many accounts in his training camp there was no such thing as Frazier going light, of him taking it easy or cruising a day or two to get his energy back. He was the picture of intensity every step of the way. Sparring partners were beaten from pillar to post on a regular basis and forced to fight for their lives. Similarly, the speedball and heavy bag were worked over as if they had personally insulted Joe.

He would run for hours at a time, as far and as fast as was possible. Of course the accuracy of this portrait of Frazierís training regimen can only be verified or refuted by himself or those who spent a lot of time with him during training. But knowing what we know from the way he fought it is almost certainly true that insanely rigorous training sessions were the norm for Frazier. Every day in training was executed in top-gear.

Psychologically at least, this type of approach is going to take its toll. At some point the physical ability to train flat-out every day is going to ebb. A man who only knows how to train that way may quickly lose his edge if he does not adjust. On the other hand, it is hard to strike a balance between over-training and under-training. In the case of Joe Frazierís apparent decline in conditioning after 1971, it is impossible to separate the physiological from the psychological. Maybe his body just started to stall or maybe his inner fire could never again rage as it had before he had vanquished Muhammad Ali.

Frazier also suffered ailments such as high blood pressure, an eye cataract, an ever-increasing propensity to swell up during fights, and other eye trouble that hindered him during the latter half of his career. His style of fighting was certainly not suited to a long career. Henry Armstrong and Rocky Marciano - two great swarming pressure fighters to whom Frazier was often compared - both retired at the age of thirty-two.

Joe Frazierís short prime lasted from the mid-to-late 1960s and culminated in 1971 with the centrepiece victory over Ali. During these years Frazier was an awesome fighter, evidence of which has been caught on film. His fights with Oscar Bonavena, George Chuvalo, Buster Mathis, Manuel Ramos, Jerry Quarry, Jimmy Ellis, Bob Foster and of course Ali, show a fighter of rare ability, power, courage and tenacity. Not one of these fighters could keep Frazier at bay. Not one of them could keep Frazier from turning the contests into his sort of fight. His relentless pressure put paid the any best laid plans they may have harboured on entering the ring. His speed of hand and foot was often overlooked as was his defensive skill. Almost always in the position of being the shorter fighter with the shorter reach, he became highly proficient in getting past long jabs and under the big follow-up right crosses. But if he had to, he would take them and walk right through them.

He is remembered for his vicious left hook. It was a tool he used not as some sort of loaded weapon to pull out on rare occasions to score a big spectacular KO, but as a constant drill against his opponentís body and head, a hook that could and would be doubled, tripled and quadrupled up. When it landed flush it would deposit the foe to the canvas. When it glanced it would chip away another piece of the manís soul and further dissolve his spirit. When it missed it would strike fear and panic into the opponent as it whistled past his head. Complemented with an under-rated left jab and a thunderous right to the body, Frazierís hook was a frightening sight to behold.

I have noticed that not all boxing enthusiasts, historians, writers and ďexpertsĒ hold Joe Frazier in as high regard as I do. Max Kellerman, a TV boxing analyst with an apparently good degree of knowledge in boxing history, once claimed that Joe Frazier would be out-pointed in an imaginary fight with Roy Jones Jr. All I can say is that Max Kellerman has a vivid imagination. In all likelihood Joe Frazier would have walked through Jones like he walked through Bob Foster and Jimmy Ellis. Roy Jones was not even a heavyweight and the only heavyweight he ever beat was the ordinary John Ruiz - how would this suggest he could beat Joe Frazier ? Joe Frazier beat Muhammad Ali, yet he is supposed to lose to Roy Jones ! Kellerman still works in television. As a boxing analyst. Why ?

Max Kellermanís remarks may be unusual (I think even he may have recanted them at a later date) but I think they represent a general tendency to under-rate Joe Frazier among the modern heavyweights. Many see Frazier as just playing second-fiddle to Ali in their classic fight trilogy and they see nothing outside of the Ali fights to uphold Frazierís claim to greatness. There is a tendency in bookshop boxing literature to portray Frazierís famous victory in ďThe Fight of the CenturyĒ as just the end of the second act in the play that was the career of Muhammad Ali.

All ends well when the protagonist of the story comes back to avenge the early setback in those two subsequent showdowns. The other side of the story is Frazierís - a man blazing through all his rivals and capping it with the ultimate victory over the undefeated living legend, after which - having scaled these monumental heights - he has nowhere to go but down. George Foreman was Frazierís nemesis, not Ali. Joe Frazier was in fact Aliís nemesis. Muhammad Ali, in his turn, was Foremanís.

The George Foreman fight leads many to question Joe Frazierís chin. While not many go as far as to say Frazier had a glass jaw there is a suggestion that he would not fare well against anyone who could be considered a big puncher. There is also the line of thinking that says Frazier was a slow-starter and would be dead meat against any big puncher who starts aggressively. For example, I have heard it said that Mike Tyson at his best would beat Frazier inside of one round.

I think Joe Frazier had a more than adequate ability to absorb a punch. George Foreman had freakish punching power and he had to be at his best to do what he did to Frazier, who was certainly way off form. The uppercut Foreman caught Frazier with in round one was homicidal in nature. That punch would have probably effectively finished a Mike Tyson or even an Evander Holyfield. Muhammad Ali was not hit by anything like that when he faced Foreman. It was a truly sickening blow - landing full power on the point of the chin, almost decapitating Frazier and sending him to his knees, his legs twisted beneath him. And Frazier got up. And he fought back.

Other than the Foreman fight, I can pick out a knockdown suffered by a novice Frazier against a Mike Bruce, a couple of knockdowns to the caveman-like Argentinian Oscar Bonavena in another early fight, and little else in the way of moments when Joe Frazier was truly hurt. You can also see that Ali was trying his hardest to punch Frazier with full power for the best part of the first fight and the third one (and Ali was a decent puncher when he had to be) but Frazier stood up. Jerry Quarry was another fighter who could bang when he needed to. And he sure as hell tried to take Frazier out. But Joe soaked it all up. There was clearly nothing wrong with Frazierís chin.

George Foreman was the only man ever to knock Frazier out. He did so twice. They met again in a non-title fight three years after their first encounter, and this time Frazierís condition had deteriorated even further as he entered the ring at 224 pounds and allegedly wore a contact lens for his by now desperate eyesight issues. At the age of thirty-two Frazier looked about forty-five, in a boxing ring at least. He lasted five rounds with Foreman this time. He suffered two knockdowns and once again finished the fight on his feet, the referee saving him from his own bravery. There was no quit in Joe Frazier. He was willing to fight to the last drop of blood. In his final fight with Muhammad Ali in Manila he was retired from the fight at the end of the fourteenth round by his cornerman Eddie Futch, his face swollen so badly he could not see his opponent - he protested Futchís decision and probably never completed forgave him for it. Frazier would rather die than quit.

So, do I think Mike Tyson at his best could knock Frazier out inside one round ? No, frankly I find such a suggestion ludicrous. I doubt Tyson could have beaten Frazier at all. Foreman was very strong and he used his immense strength to push Frazier away from him so that he could tee off with the big shots. Mike Tyson, a fighter who is hardly bigger than Frazier, would never be able to do this to him. And a Tyson close enough to hit Frazier would also be close enough to be hit. I do not think Tyson - even at his brilliant best - was ever good enough to have beaten Frazier at his best. Both men are capable of putting the other on the canvas but I would only bet on one of them to be able to pick themselves off of it and knock the other one out. Remember, Frazier destroyed souls and broke hearts. And he never quit. I think Joe Frazier is one of the true heavyweight greats. No doubt about it. He belongs alongside Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, Sonny Liston and George Foreman.

Article posted on 01.08.2006

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