The great, the legendary, the never to be forgotten Joe Frazier would have been 80 years old today. Born in Beaufort, North Carolina on January 12 of 1944, Frazier would as we know relocate to Philadelphia as a young man, where he would go on to become not only one of the greatest fighter’s in the city’s history, but one of the greatest fighters in the world. Of all time.
“Smokin’ Joe” was and is everything that represents desire, drive, heart, courage, honest hard work. And of course, Joe was a world heavyweight champion the entire world could admire, could look up to. Well, Frazier didn’t have all of the stage to himself while he was wearing the crown; the other half of the stage being held firmly by Muhammad Ali. As all fans know, these two men gave us THE heavyweight rivalry of heavyweight rivalries.
And Joe, both before he became the holder of the heavyweight belts, and even after he had finally earned universal recognition as THE champ, this after his superb, peak performance of a win over Ali in 1971, toiled in Ali’s shadow. Frazier had his followers, while Ali had his. Political opposites as well as opposite personalities, with Joe and Ali each having a totally different fighting style also, these two kings of the ring were blessed to have been born around the same time, this allowing them to collide when at or near their respective primes. And how blessed were the world’s fight fans from March of 1971 to October of 1975, this the span of the three-fight rivalry!
Another anniversary this year sees the fabulous ‘Champions Forever’ film turn 25. It was actually in late summer of 1989 when the film was released, but as this is Joe Frazier’s birthday (the man with the greatest left hook in heavyweight boxing having sadly passed away back in November of 2011, this from liver cancer at age 67), why not have a bit of a debate?
The five heavyweight greats who feature in ‘Champions Forever’ are of course: Ali, Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton, and Larry Holmes.
But how do the ‘Champions Forever’ rank in terms of greatness??!
Let’s have some fun (and nothing more, so don’t get nasty!)
Joe would not have agreed (he never did), but Ali was the “Greatest.” Wins over Frazier X2, Foreman, Norton X2, and other notables such as, Sonny Liston X2, Floyd Patterson X2, Earnie Shavers, Ron Lyle, George Chuvalo X2, Jerry Quarry X2, Oscar Bonavena, and many more make for some immensely impressive resume.
Ali, simply put, WAS boxing in his heyday (actually his two heydays, in the 1960s and in the 1970s). Aside from when he was badly faded, and possibly suffering from the early symptoms of Parkinson’s, and was stopped by Holmes, Ali always found a way to win. Frazier went to his grave fully believing he “won all three” against Ali, but Ali’s 2-1 edge over Joe really does give the first ever three-time heavyweight champ some serious ammo as far as this (fun) debate goes.
Now, how do the other four giants rank?!
2: George Foreman.
Foreman of course hammered Frazier two times, yet he fell to Ali. Foreman crushed Norton, but he never (through no fault of either man) fought Holmes. But Foreman’s other credentials are hugely impressive: KO’s over Ron Lyle, George Chuvalo, Chuck Wepner Gerry Cooney, Michael Moorer. And of course Foreman made history by becoming the oldest heavyweight champion ever. It’s close, and no doubt numerous fans will have Holmes at #2, or maybe Frazier. But “Big George” gets the #2 vote here.
3: Larry Holmes.
Sorry, Joe! Holmes, as hard a worker as Frazier, and a man who found out how tough it can be living and fighting whilst in Ali’s shadow, had a heck of a run as heavyweight champ. After making steady progress, and learning lots whilst sparring with Ali, Holmes won the WBC belt with a stirring win over Norton, and then Larry reigned for over seven years. With fine wins over, Earnie Shavers X2, Gerry Cooney, Tim Witherspoon, Renaldo Snipes, Mike Weaver, Bonecrusher Smith and, later, as an older guy, Ray Mercer, Holmes showed so much in the ring. It is possible Holmes had the finest left jab in heavyweight history. And as for Holme’s astonishing chin and recuperative powers…..! Holmes was special. If only he’d been born five or six years earlier.
4: Joe Frazier.
Joe was far from ideally built to be a heavyweight, his height and reach seeing him at a disadvantage when facing almost all of the guys he fought. But Frazier, with relentless perpetual motion, with his rapid head movement, with an ability at putting on the fiercest of pressure, and with his wicked left hook, took away the heart and soul of many a bigger man.
Frazier’s style, of taking two or three to land one, wasn’t conducive to a long career, but Joe ruled for three years. And of course, Frazier was the first man to defeat Ali. Along with big wins over, Jimmy Ellis X2, Oscar Bonavena, Jerry Quarry, Buster Mathis, and George Chuvalo, Frazier didn’t duck or dodge anyone.
It is though, the three epics with Ali that define Joe.
5: Ken Norton.
Coming last in this particular race is no bad thing, nor anything like a disgrace. Norton was an unlucky fighter in some ways, with many fans and experts feeling he deserved the decision in two of his big fights with Ali, not just in the first one. While Norton, who was never crowned champion in the ring, came within a whisker of topping Holmes in their superb 1978 battle.
Norton, who sparred Frazier harder than hard but would never fight him, friends as they were, picked up significant wins over the following fighters not named Ali, Jerry Quarry, Jimmy Young, Randy “Tex” Cobb. Norton always said he’d have loved to have “met the man when he was in his prime,” the man of course being Ali. As good as he was, maybe Norton would have given any version of Ali nothing but hell?
Of these five greats, only two are still here, able to wish Joe a posthumous happy birthday, this of course being George and Larry. Look for both legends to do so today.