Some Thoughts on Smokin’ Joe Frazier (Part 2)

02.08.06 - By Stuart Cornwell: My recent tribute to the great Joe Frazier provoked so much response (both positive and negative) - and more than a little debate - that I have been inspired to produce this follow up piece, for better or for worse. There were many thoughts and facts omitted from that article that I had wished to include but doing so would have made for an excessively lengthy article.

Of course, Joe Frazier is the type of subject of which boxing writers will never tire. A fighters’ fighter and a writers’ fighter. Of those who respect the profession of prizefighting he will forever command the utmost respect. For those who are roused only by the eccentric poets, bad boys, nut-cases and thugs who sometimes steal the boxing limelight he will probably remain a disappointment. Joe Frazier was pure fighter. And a champion. The true fans love him.

My concerns that Joe Frazier suffers from being vastly under-rated among many writers, “experts” and fans were borne out by some of the responses to my last article. Not only are some of the readers here of the opinion that Frazier would get massacred by some fighters who frankly do not belong in the same sentence as Smokin’ Joe, but they are also under the false impression that he did not fare well against the best fighters of his own time. There are also suggestions that he failed to meet some of his most worthy rivals - the implication being that he (or his manager) was avoiding certain fighters. At the very least it is implied that he was fortunate not to meet some of his peers. Other comments make it clear that my article on Joe Frazier concentrated too much on Joe Frazier and not enough on Muhammad Ali.

So I will start with the issue of Muhammad Ali and his three-and-a-half year layoff that for some observers is sufficient reason to almost completely disregard Joe Frazier’s win over him. Firstly, Ali was not coming off a three-and-a-half year layoff - he had fought Oscar Bonavena (winning by TKO in the 15th round) three months earlier and Jerry Quarry (TKO in 3) six weeks prior to that. The long layoff had occurred before the Quarry fight. Leading up to the “Fight of the Century”, Muhammad Ali had actually fought more rounds of competitive boxing in the previous five months than Joe Frazier had fought in the previous two years. Fifteen rounds against Oscar Bonavena is more than enough to shake off any ring rust.

So, Ali was not rusty but that is not to say that he was the same fighter he had been back in 1966 or 1967 before he had been forced out of boxing. He was not the same. He had slowed a bit and his legs had less of the legendary spring in them as they had done before the layoff. But I think - and there is nothing to indicate otherwise - that he was in as good a condition against Frazier in ‘71 as he was to be at any other time after the layoff.

In fact he looked in superb shape against Frazier, at a lean 215 pounds. He actually looked in similar condition to when he later regained the title from George Foreman in Kinshasa in 1974 or when he fought Ken Norton the second time in 1973. He was in at least that sort of shape for my money. He was not the fat blubbery version of himself who fought later against the likes of Chuck Wepner, Jimmy Young, Leon Spinks or whoever else he chose to take lightly. For that fight against Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali was still a great fighter. Greater than many of the great heavyweights were on their best ever nights.

Muhammad Ali had never faced a fighter like Joe Frazier, that is the truth of the matter. The fighters he had dominated in the 1960s fall well short of being in Joe Frazier’s class - with the notable exception of Sonny Liston (who surrendered to Ali so pathetically rumours of fixed fights carry on to this day). Joe Frazier may not have been able to beat the version of Muhammad Ali (or Cassius Clay) who fought in the 1960s before being forced out of boxing for political reasons. I think the young twenty-four year old Ali was phenomenal, and overall a significantly better fighter than he was after the layoff. But the fighter who came back in 1970 was a great fighter too.

Ali was coming off two wins over top contenders when he faced Frazier - and although he had laboured through his fight with Bonavena (a notoriously awkward fighter) he had closed the show with probably the most devastating punch of his career. He was hitting with power, hitting often and was in good physical shape. This was a well-conditioned twenty-nine year-old fighter who was yet to go on to many great victories. This was a great fighter. But he was not good enough to beat Joe Frazier. Because Joe Frazier was a great fighter too.

Of course there is also a line of thought that says the Ali-Frazier fight of 1971 was so close that Frazier could not even have hoped to have a chance against any better version of Ali. I do not think it was close. In New York in those days they used the old straightforward rounds system of scoring. Under that system the most I can give to Ali (from viewing the film) is 6 rounds, with 9 going to Frazier. It was a hard fight for both men but Frazier handed out a far worse beating than anything coming back at him.

Most people agree that a fairer system of scoring is the “10 point must” system - in which the winner of a round must receive 10 points (except when deductions for fouls are enforced) and the loser either 9 or 8 points (or sometimes 7). Such a system allows one-sided rounds to count more heavily than those that are won more narrowly. Viewed that way the closest I can score the Ali-Frazier fight is 144 (Frazier) to 139 (Ali). Of course they were not fighting under the 10 point must system, but I think it would be a stretch to suggest that Ali could have done anything different to “steal” more points on that night if they had been.

Joe Frazier’s victory over Muhammad Ali in 1971 was hard-fought but it was not close. A decision in Ali’s favour would not have been remembered as merely controversial - it would have gone down in history as the robbery of the century. No one can calculate what the score of an imaginary Ali-Frazier fight featuring Ali at his absolute best would look like. If he fights a lot better he might win his rounds far more emphatically while making Frazier’s best rounds far closer - in which case Ali could still lose 9 rounds to 6 ! That is the nature of the scoring system.

Now that I have covered Muhammad Ali at length I can get back to the subject of Joe Frazier. The doubts raised over the claim that Frazier was a truly formidable heavyweight often pertain to his size and strength, or alleged lack thereof. Bizarrely I have even read his somewhat embarrassing showing in the 1970s TV competition “Superstars” being cited as proof that he was “too weak” to compete with strong heavyweights. “Superstars” was a TV show in which various world-class athletes from different sports would compete against each other in different events to determine who was the best all-round athlete. I am told Frazier performed poorly in a weightlifting test in which he struggled with an overhead press with a fairly modest weight.

Not surprisingly, fighting was not part of the “Superstars” competition. If it had been, Joe Frazier would have been picking up the points while his competitors would have been picking up their teeth. People who equate weightlifting prowess to fighting prowess are committing a error. Strength in the boxing context is not the same as absolute strength as tested by weightlifting. Some boxers are good natural lifters, others have developed into strong lifters through hard weight training and swear by its benefits. Others have never lifted weights and have never needed to. Being strong in the ring is more than having brute muscular strength. I have no doubt that Frazier did have a lot of muscular strength - in his legs (where the power comes from) rather than his upper body - but it was his stamina that was his real strength.

Men like Ken Norton (who was Frazier’s chief sparring partner when Smokin’ Joe was at his peak) and George Chuvalo were certainly incredibly strong by any reckoning. On film you can see Ken Norton bulling around a young Larry Holmes at times in a way that Evander Holyfield could not do to an old Larry Holmes. Chuvalo had been a stocky muscular bull since he was a teenager - even a young George Foreman chose to box on the backfoot for a couple of rounds against him in 1970. These men were strong heavyweights by any standards.

I believe Norton and Chuvalo would beat Frazier in a weight pressing contest. But in the ring it is different. Frazier had Chuvalo broken and reeling away in agony as the referee stepped in at the start of the 4th round when they fought in 1967. Eddie Futch - who worked as a cornerman for both Frazier and Norton, and witnessed their sparring sessions - was of the opinion that Frazier would have beaten Norton. I am not saying he would have (Norton was a great fighter in his own right) but Futch’s opinion is as good as any on the matter. Some people may believe that the heavyweights of today are significantly stronger than those of the past but it is unlikely that any of them are stronger than Norton or Chuvalo, or as strong as George Foreman.

Joe Frazier’s last professional fight was in 1981 in an ill-advised comeback fight against Floyd “Jumbo” Cummings. Joe was just shy of his thirty-eighth birthday, weighed in at around 230 pounds (about 20 to 25 pounds over his best fighting weight), had been inactive for five years and was about ten to fifteen years removed from his prime. Cummings was a reasonably good boxer - not world-class but a dangerous strong fighter, a cut above the average journeyman. If anyone has ever seen Cummings they would have surely been impressed by his physique. During a twelve-year stint in jail Cummings apparently took advantage of the weightlifting facilities. He had the impressive muscular development on his back and legs that signifies true lifting strength.

If weightlifting prowess was related to prizefighting prowess Joe Frazier would not have stood a chance against Floyd “Jumbo” Cummings in his prime, never mind as a blubbery shell of what he had once been. Yet the old soft shell of a man who used to be Smokin’ Joe stood up to Cummings for 10 rounds and walked away with a draw. The decision was very unfair to Cummings but I think it shows how over-rated brute strength is ; and how tough Joe Frazier was. Even the remains of Joe Frazier was good enough to stand up to a super-strong middling heavyweight like Jumbo Cummings.

In the boxing sense Joe Frazier was plenty strong enough. When boxers talk of strength they are often referring to stamina, toughness, durability, endurance - the ability to press forward round after round, seemingly getting stronger as the fight progresses. It is no use a fighter having herculean strength before the bell rings if he cannot lift his arms up after 4 or 5 rounds. It is no use him having a knockout punch for a round or two but becoming feather-fisted in the final stretch. Fighters like that are not strong fighters. Joe Frazier had immense strength. His strength was developed through his gruelling running and gym schedule, and demonstrated in his leg power and strong infighting stance. Three minutes each round. Round after round.

There is an old boxing trainers’ maxim that goes, “Make a tall fighter taller, make a short fighter shorter”. For a heavyweight Joe Frazier was short and in the boxing ring he became shorter. His low-crouching bobbing-and-weaving style often made him a difficult target to hit cleanly, and it made his precise angle and moment of attack almost impossible for his opponents to anticipate.

Some people describe Frazier as a “one-dimensional” fighter, others would say he was “predictable”. In one sense they are right - when Frazier came to do battle everyone knew what style and strategy he would be employing. But in the live environment of a boxing match, with every split-second being fraught with danger and with battles being won and lost by instances of instinctual timing and mental concentration, Frazier was anything but predictable. He was a classic pressure fighter - his game was to apply constant pressure, forcing his opponent into making fatal errors. If he had been truly one-dimensional it would not have worked - he would have been out-boxed by any good boxer.

The fighter who was to be Frazier’s nemesis, George Foreman, was actually more “one-dimensional” than Frazier. That really shows how useless such labels are in accurately describing these great fighters. Few will agree with my opinion that Joe Frazier at his absolute best could have beaten Foreman. I do think that Foreman’s style would have always been extremely dangerous to Frazier. His strength combined with his power and size, the deadly uppercut, the reckless all-out bombing style and a solid chin - the complete package that Foreman brought to the ring would never be anything but a mighty challenge for Frazier to overcome, whatever his condition.

It has to be said that when a fighter is visibly out-of-shape and at the same time heavier than usual it is usually the result of over-eating and under-training and often of simply being over-the-hill. Such was the case with Joe Frazier in his fights with George Foreman. It is also the case that the better conditioned a fighter is, the better his capacity for taking punishment, the better his speed and reflexes, the harder he is to hit and the better he is at throwing his punches in. That would at least suggest that a Frazier in peak-condition could last longer against George Foreman than he did out-of-condition. And I suspect Foreman at that time was a relatively short-distance fighter. That is why I say Frazier at his best could have dismantled Foreman. I am not saying he would have.

It is the defeat to Foreman in Kingston, Jamaica in 1973 that leads many to say that Joe Frazier could not beat a good, tall, strong power-punching type fighter. Admittedly, fighters of this type may pose the most problems to Joe Frazier but how many fighters in history can be compared to George Foreman ? Very few. If we are going to loosely categorize a lot of heavyweights who are a few inches taller than Frazier, with long reaches and big punches, and throw them in the “George Foreman mould” then we are flattering them beyond all reason. Men like Frank Bruno, Bonecrusher Smith and Razor Ruddock - as good as they were - surely must remain underdogs against Frazier. George Foreman was a exceptional fighter.

The same criticism of Joe Frazier (ie. that he could not beat a good tall, strong puncher) is often “backed up” by allegations that he in fact never did, and that there were plenty of fighters of this type around but he was just fortunate not to meet them. The names usually thrown up are Ron Lyle, Earnie Shavers, Mac Foster and Ken Norton. The name of Sonny Liston is usually left off - though I think Frazier’s critics would have a far better case asking why Frazier did not fight Liston.

Ron Lyle turned professional one month after Joe Frazier beat Muhammad Ali, the fight that effectively ended Frazier’s prime. By the time Joe Frazier lost to George Foreman in January 1973, Lyle had progressed to 19-0 and was an up-and-coming prospect contender. The very next month Lyle came into his first major fight, against Jerry Quarry in Madison Square Garden in New York, and got thoroughly out-boxed over twelve rounds.

Earnie Shavers was fighting nobodies out in Ohio small towns when Frazier was in his prime. He too came to Madison Square Garden in 1973 where knocked out Jimmy Ellis in one round to earn a world rating. Around this time Joe Frazier was coming back from his loss to George Foreman by fighting the world-rated Joe Bugner in London. At the end of ‘73 Shavers returned to The Garden and got stopped in one round by Jerry Quarry.

Mac Foster started boxing out on the west coast in 1966, he racked up 24 straight knockout wins against tomato cans and terribly washed-up has-beens. He was a good fighter though, and was being prepared for a shot at the champion Joe Frazier, so he came to Madison Square Garden in New York in 1970 and got knocked out by Jerry Quarry. After that he was never considered much of a force in the division.

Can you see a pattern emerging ? These men were fighting in the palooka leagues when Frazier was in his prime (Ron Lyle was not even fighting professionally when Joe Frazier was in his prime). They all got beat by Jerry Quarry. Let us not forget that Frazier was an ex-champion before Lyle and Shavers were even real contenders. And as an ex-champion who wanted to win his title back he was matched with fighters who were high in the ratings. He fought Bugner and then Ali again, and then he fought and beat Jerry Quarry (who had recently beaten Lyle and Shavers, and had burst Foster’s bubble some time earlier). If the critics think he should have fought dangerous lower-rated fighters then they do not understand the point of the game.

As for Ken Norton, him and Frazier shared the same cornerman/manager in Eddie Futch. A Norton-Frazier match was never going to happen unless considered potentially the biggest thing in boxing, which it never was. Both fighters fought Muhammad Ali three times, Frazier was champion and Norton got two title shots - so both men had brilliant careers. There was never any need for them to fight each other.

I think it is wrong to think Joe Frazier had an sort of easy ride or free pass when it comes to him fighting the best available opposition. He was fighting world-rated fighters after about 11 pro fights and fought world-rated opposition for the majority of his fights from then on. Did he always fight the best available opposition ? No, of course not. The challengers Ron Stander and Terry Daniels (who both fought him after his win over Muhammad Ali) were not worthy. And other easy fights were strategically placed throughout his career. But no more so than in the careers of other great fighters.

Of course it is easy to nit-pick and say “But he didn’t fight X, Y and Z” about many great champions. It is often done in a disingenuous or desperate way to discredit a fighter’s achievements. I think a Joe Frazier-Sonny Liston fight in the late 60s would have made for a thrilling contest (with Frazier at his peak and an over-the-hill Liston still dangerous) but I am not going to turn it into reason to diminish Frazier. Nobody needed Sonny Liston at that point - he was a pariah in boxing, associated with fixed fights and gangsters, and barred from competing in New York (whose commission were first to recognize Frazier as “world champion”). Also he was knocked out by Leotis Martin in 1969, so there may be numerous reasons why him fighting Frazier was out of the question. But he was certainly the foremost strong, power-punching type of fighter around during Frazier’s prime - and he had a wicked jab on the end of an insanely long reach that may well have troubled Smokin’ Joe.

Joe Frazier at his best would have given any heavyweight who ever lived a good fight. It is impossible to say for sure who were the true greats - which heavyweight champions belong in the pantheon of boxing gods. In my last article I mentioned Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, Sonny Liston and George Foreman. Of course there are others. That is not a definitive list. The great fighters are usually the ones who continue to be spoken about years after they have gone. They trigger endless debate and argument. They stand out above the legions of ordinary fighters and that is why every boxing enthusiast has an opinion about them. Joe Frazier is clearly one of these fighters. While I can appreciate the eccentric poets, bad boys, nut-cases and thugs that may steal the boxing limelight once in a while, I appreciate Joe Frazier for what he was - a pure fighter.

Article posted on 03.08.2006

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