Happy Birthday, “Smokin’” Joe Frazier!

joe frazier13.01.07 - By James Slater: What a month for legendary heavyweight champions January is. Not only was George Foreman born in this month - on the 10th, in 1949 - but his two most famous adversaries were as well. Both Joe Frazier and - the man who holds the mantle, surely, as THE most famous boxer of all-time, Muhammad Ali - also came into the world in the year’s first month, on the 12th in 1944 and on the 17th in 1942, respectively. More than enough ink will be used in writing tributes to “The Greatest’s” sixty-fifth birthday next week, me-thinks - so in this article I look back instead at the ring exploits of the man so often sadly relegated to being remembered as having merely been Ali’s supporting player.

Joseph William Frazier was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, sixty-three years ago today (Jan 12th). Born into a hard working family that, if it wasn’t flat out broke, was certainly what one could class as being poor, Joe soon relocated to the place with which he would forever be associated - Philadelphia.

Arguably “The City of Brotherly Love’s” most cherished and well known pugilist, Joe very quickly won praise for his determination and all-out aggressive style. Like Rocky Marciano before him, Joe soon realised that his shortcomings - of both a physical standpoint, along with his not having been blessed with anything like naturally silky boxing skills - would have to be overcome with sheer hard work and a reliance on inner strength.

Standing only Five feet, eleven and a half inches tall, and with noticeably shorter arms than most heavyweights, Joe was to develop a fighting style that saw him take three or four punches on the way to landing his own when inside his opponent’s reach. When there, however, he would make his own shots tell. Such a style was possible only due to Joe’s solid chin and ability to take wicked punishment. His first and most influential trainer, Yank Durham, always envisioned a relatively short career for Joe - who he nicknamed “Smokin’” because he would constantly yell at Joe to make smoke come from the heavy bag when in training. Taking twice as many punches as the ones that you land yourself is never a strategy that will provide long years at the top. Therefore Joe would have to make each fight count - win the title, make as much money defending it as possible and then get out of the game.

After a chance opportunity saw him picked for the 1964 Olympic team in Tokyo (he replaced Buster Mathis, who pulled out) and the subsequent gold medal it brought him, Frazier set about making it as a pro. He boxed his debut in August of 1965, winning a first round stoppage over one Woody Goss. Pretty soon Joe’s superb left hook began getting him noticed. His most effective and famous punch was actually acquired in his formative years. According to Joe himself, he developed his natural left hook when, assisting his one armed father in various farming chores, he became his “left hand man.” The hard work he had been subject to when barely in his teens paid off, and now “Smokin’” Joe’s rigorous work ethic was serving him no end of good.

He powered his way to a straight seventeen wins, all but one of the victories coming without any trouble, before achieving his first really big and impressive win. The tough night came against the hard as nails Argentine, Oscar Bonavena, in 1966. Knocked down twice in the second round, Joe was one more trip to the floor away from an automatic stoppage defeat. He scraped through the round, however, and was awarded a close and debatable split decision triumph. These two would meet again down the road. Then came the interest garnering win. Joe absolutely pummelled Canadian heavyweight George Chuvalo, to the extent that the fight was a gruesome one to view. With his face a complete mess, the gutsy Chuvalo was stopped in the fourth round. Frazier was well and truly on his way.

It was around this time, however, that all things heavyweight got a bit messy. Muhammad Ali, having refused induction into the Vietnam war, was stripped of his world championship and a series of elimination bouts to decide his successor was set in motion. Fighters such as Jimmy Ellis, Floyd Patterson, and Jerry Quarry participated in the elimination bouts. But, in a wise move, Yank Durham refused to let Joe take part. Instead, Joe fought the aforementioned Buster Mathis, for what the New York State would recognise as the heavyweight champion ship. Joe won in eleven rounds and now had at least some claim to the throne. Then, after all the hard work had been done by the eight fighters in the eliminations, Joe challenged the winner, for the right to be called the one, true champ. Jimmy Ellis was the man, and Joe KO’d him in four sensational rounds. He was now the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Or was he?

The shadow of Muhammad Ali hanging over him, Joe knew he would never be the “real” king until he’d beaten the undefeated former title holder. Fortunately, for both Ali and Frazier and we the fans, Muhammad’s boxing licence was reinstated and “The Fight of The Century” was on. The date was March the 8th, 1971, and the greatest rivalry in boxing history was born. Ali had beaten two men in his comeback. After over three years out he had conquered both Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonaveva. Both men had been in with Frazier - twice in the case of Oscar, who Joe defeated for a second time, this time on points over fifteen, in 1968, two years after their initial and closer encounter (Joe would also box a second match with Quarry in time). And after these two ring returns only, Ali felt ready to get in there with Joe. For the first time in history, two unbeaten heavyweight champions would collide. The rest is history, of course. Joe proved to everyone he was indeed the genuine champion, beating Ali over fifteen gruelling rounds to retain his championship. The fifteenth and final round knockdown Joe scored is today the stuff of legend. Ali had lost for the very first time.

Retirement could very well have been justified in Joe’s case at this time. He’d done everything asked of him, his record was still without a blemish and he had his health and financial security. Who knows, if Frazier had quit then he might be even more highly ranked in the greatest ever heavyweights charts these days. What is for certain is the fact that his peak years had passed, and what followed was, while still more than dignified, a slowly declining career. After a couple of easy wins over relative journeymen, Joe was badly beaten by the division’s new star, George Foreman, in January 1973. Six times in as many minutes Joe was sent crashing to the mat. His title was gone, and with it, seemingly, were Ali’s hopes of a revengev inducing rematch with him. What actually followed were the two fights for which Ali and Frazier are arguably most well known and respected. First Ali shocked the world in October of 1974 by KO’ing the mighty Foreman (after a points win over Joe in “Super fight Two” in Jan of that year) and then both men met for the third and final time in 1975. The resulting fight, known as “The Thrilla in Manila” was, of course, the most brutal and thrilling of their trilogy.

Joe Frazier surprised everyone, not least Ali, with his passionate and energy-filled performance. Spurred on by his absolute hatred of the man taunting him incessantly, “Smokin’” Joe fought with greatness for the very last time. Despite his pushing Ali to, “The closest thing to death he knew of” though, his new trainer (Yank Durham passed away in 1973) Eddie Futch tenderly pulled him out after the fourteenth round. Unable to see due to the pounding Ali’s gloves had given both his eyes, Eddie rescued him saying, “Sit down, son, it’s over. No-one will forget what you did here today.” He was right, of course. People still watch, while open-mouthed, the violence and the guts that were on display that sweltering day in October of ’75.

Apart from a foolish attempt to get revenge over “Big” George the following year, in a fight that saw Joe hammered for a second time - in five rounds on this occasion, Frazier’s career was all but over. Although as a thirty-seven year old Joe did box one comeback bout in 1981 - fighting a ten round draw with Floyd “Jumbo” Cummings. For all intents and purposes, however, the admirable boxing life of Philadelphia’s most courageous fighter ended at the end of the fourteenth round in Manila. And to think, there is a very strong belief among the principals involved that tell us Joe fought practically his entire career (from the Olympics on) with vision in only one of his eyes - his right. Joe himself first announced this to a shocked world in his autobiography, entitled “Smokin’ Joe.” If this is indeed true, and I would never accuse Mr. Frazier of being a liar, it is yet one more astonishing testament to the quite unbelievable fighting heart of the man.

“Smokin’ Joe Frazier, born today sixty-three years ago. What a man.

Article posted on 14.01.2007

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