Imagine how highly heavyweight warrior Joe Frazier would be rated today if he had retired after he had, as he himself put it, “closed the butterfly’s lips” in March of 1971. Often in boxing, it’s crucial, legacy-wise, how a fighter leaves the sport. Too often a once indestructible fighting machine becomes a mere mortal due to the passing of years and the number of hard fights endured.
But heavyweight legend Joe Frazier – who sadly passed away five years ago today – was never going to call it a day after scoring the biggest, most impressive win of his entire career. It was of course March of ’71 when Frazier met Muhammad Ali in a Fight of The Century that lived up to ALL the hype and its lofty billing, and Joe, then aged 27 and at his blistering, unstoppable peak at 26-0 as a pro had truly conquered the world. Why – how – could he possibly walk away?”Smokin’” Joe had plenty of fight left in him, even if the titanic battle with Ali had taken its toll.
If Joe had been managed the way today’s heavyweights are, he would have been fed just about any challenger he chose to defend against, and after going through what he’d gone through against Ali and coming out on top, the Philadelphia immortal would have gotten away with it. But the sport was way tougher back in Frazier’s day. Way tougher.
Okay, Joe did have a couple of “easy” defences following the 15-round win over “The Greatest” (was Joe now deserving of this title!) but then, 22 months after the win over Ali (22 months being a time-frame in which today’s heavies might fight twice; and not after having gone through what Joe and Ali did in their epic) Joe was put in with the fearsome George Foreman. Would better management have seen Joe steered clear of Foreman, a fighter he never had to face in the first place?
But Frazier, never, ever a fighter, or a man, to avoid a challenge, quite literally met the destructive Foreman head-on. These days, a fighter of Frazier’s magnitude would have kept Foreman waiting for up to three years, he would have asked for a gazzilion dollars, home town advantage and a rematch clause. But Joe, and George, two of the last truly great undisputed heavyweight kings, were cut from a different cloth. “I just fight ’em,” Frazier said. “Yank [his manager and trainer Durham] picks ’em.”
And Frazier fought ’em all, and hard. We will never see his like again. Frazier, when he did call it quits, walked away with a 32-4-1(27) record. That means, he fought just ten times after the historic, never to be topped Ali win, winning just half of these bouts. Again, where would “Smoke” be placed amongst the finest-ever heavyweights champs if he had smoked no more after that unforgettable night at The Garden?
Joe Frazier, 1944-2011: gone too soon but never forgotten.