A half century ago in his hometown of Philadelphia, boxing legend Joe Frazier punched for pay for the very first time. Not that the young Frazier got paid much at all. How times have changed. Today, an Olympic gold medal winner is a valuable commodity, one that can demand, and receive, a huge amount of money even before proving he or she can really fight at professional level.
But the tough way of living, of doing things, was the code Frazier lived by. He wouldn’t have it any other way; to be lavished over, to be afforded a life of affluence, would just have made Joe soft. Having overcome an almost unimaginably cruel early life, Joe would go on to toil the fields and work in a butcher shop. No wonder he was hungry.
Hanging up a self-made heavy bag constructed from corn cobs and cloth, the raw wannabe fighter cracked the bag with such force, it “made the tree tremble.” Frazier went pro in August of 1965, banging out a guy named Woody Goss. Soon signed up by a consortium called Cloverlay, Joe made sure he paid back the rich guys who had backed him (most of them white) by not losing.
Defeat did come dangerously near in his first fight with the rough and tough Oscar Bonavena (a man Frazier was certain was racist towards blacks); when Joe was bounced off the canvas twice on the way to clinging on to win a close, debatable decision in what was his 12th fight.
Good wins over the likes of Eddie Machen, Doug Jones and George Chuvalo saw Joe get a shot Buster Mathis (who Joe had substituted in the 1964 Olympic Games) for a version of the world title. Frazier easily took the NYSAC title and he then defended it against good men, Bonavena (this time stopping the Argentine) Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Ellis.
Still, the exiled Muhammad Ali was still the real heavyweight champion. Joe agreed and he understood: only a win over Ali would make him THE man.
And what a brutal, devouring, dominating rivalry these two giants with such different fighting styles, personalities and religious beliefs gave the world. Frazier of course turned in a Herculean effort to beat Ali in fight-one, and at age 27, Frazier had peaked. He would never get any better, any bigger. Today, such a fighter, a man who had done it all, who had no more mountains to climb, may well have retired.
But not Frazier. He had too much fight in him. Burning inside of him. Frazier ran into George Foreman and it proved disastrous. Still, Frazier was not done. He had a score to settle with the man he really and honest to goodness hated.
Frazier and Ali, at 1-1, gave us their savage finale in Manila in 1975, just over ten years after Joe had gone pro. It was life and death. It was The Thrilla. It was the greatest heavyweight fight of all time. Joe lost, but he was no loser.
This should have been the end, however. But nobody could tell Joe Frazier he was finished. Nobody ever told Frazier that.
So where does Frazier rank in any list of the greatest ever heavyweights? He’s top-10 for sure. Frazier at his best was perpetual motion, devastating power and unquenchable fury all wrapped up inside an ever-advancing tank. We are so lucky to have seen this superb fighting machine do his thing. And to think, all that Frazier achieved, he did it with partial vision in his left eye.
Smoke was some warrior.