There have been, and will continue to be, some truly incredible fighters to come out of the city of Philadelphia. Just think about a Philly fighter, and you conjure up all that is tough, all that is admirable about a fighter. And perhaps no warrior from Philly ever became so at one with the above adjectives as Joe Frazier.
Frazier, who came up the hard way and never, ever stopped fighting that way, even when the $millions rolled in as a result of the blood, sweat and tears he had shed, not only in the ring, but in the gym and on the road (“Champions aren’t made in the ring, they are merely recognized there. What you cheat on in the early light of morning will show up in the ring under the bright lights,” Joe once said), fought with every ounce of his soul. Every single time.
Joseph William Frazier was born in Beaufort, South Carolina on this day in 1944. Born into a hard-working family, the young Joe had to cope with things like an outside toilet, hard toil in the fields where the family farm grew corn and watermelon, and strict discipline – “there is no right way to do wrong, there is no wrong way to do right,” being another of Joe’s memorable quotes.
As a young boy, Joe had realised his goal in life: that of becoming the heavyweight champion of the world like the great Joe Louis. In the early 1950s, the Frazier family manged to buy a small black and white TV, and Joe and his father, along with neighbours and friends, would watch greats like Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Marciano fight. An uncle stated how Joe would be “the next Joe Louis.” Relocating to Philadelphia, Joe would become THE fighter synonymous with “The City of Brotherly Love.” Like another heavyweight legend before him in Marciano, Joe knew his shortcomings – from both a physical standpoint, along with him not having been blessed with anything that could be described as silky boxing skills – would have to be overcome with sheer hard work and a reliance on inner strength. Joe was more than up to the mighty task.
Standing just 5’11,” with Joe having arms noticeably shorter than most heavyweights, Frazier was to develop a fighting style that saw him take two or three punches on the way to landing his own hurt when sufficiently inside his opponent’s reach. When inside, Joe would go to work, hard and relentless. Such a style was only achievable and successful due to Frazier’s perpetual motion, this achievable due to seemingly limitless stamina that was built up through gruelling training sessions, and a rock for a chin. Frazier’s first and most influential trainer, Yank Durham, always envisioned a short career for Frazier. Taking sometimes three times as many punches as you yourself land is not a style conducive to a long time at the top. So, Joe would have to make each fight count. He would win the world title, make as much money as he could whilst defending it, and then he would get out.
After winning Olympic gold in 1964, Frazier set about making it as a pro. It wasn’t long before Frazier’s wicked left hook got him noticed. Not know was the fact that, from ’64 on, Joe only had partial vision in his left eye. A training accident with a speed bag saw some shards of metal hit Frazier in the eye. The secret was not revealed for many years. This fact makes Frazier’s many accomplishments all the more incredible.
Nicknamed “Smokin’ Joe” by Durham (“Come on, make that bag smoke,” Yank would yell at his charge as he went to work on the heavy bag), Frazier powered his way to 11 straight wins; before a tough night came in the form of the unmovable Oscar Bonavena. In his first real test, this in his 12th fight, Joe was twice dropped by “Ringo” during their hard ten-rounder. Frazier won a close, debatable split decision.
Eddie Machen was then stopped, as was Doug Jones, and then Joe busted up the tougher than tough George Chuvalo to make it 17 straight wins. Then, in March of 1968, with world heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali having been sent into exile for his refusal to serve in the Vietnam war, Frazier won a portion of the splintered championship. Crushing Buster Mathis (who Joe had replaced at the Games in Tokyo), Joe won the vacant NYSAC heavyweight title.
Around this time, an eight-man elimination tournament was set up, with fighters such as Floyd Patterson, Jimmy Ellis and Jerry Quarry fighting for Ali’s vacant WBA title. Eddie Futch had become Frazier’s co-trainer at this stage, and it was he who advised Joe not to take part in the tournament. Joe got busy defending the version of the crown he held, and wins over Manuel Ramos, and Bonavena in a rematch, with Frazier again winning on points, closed out his year.
Frazier went to war with Quarry in June of 1969, stopping him in seven, and then Frazier, at age 26 and with a 24-0 record, smashed WBA tournament winner Jimmy Ellis to take his second belt. Frazier knew he would never be the real champion until he beat Ali.
“The Fight of the Century” came in March of 1971, and the most savage and intense sporting rivalry of all-time was born. Ali, allowed to fight again, moved fast, too fast. Winning two fights, both against former Frazier foes, Quarry and Bonavena, Ali then felt ready to tackle the at-his-peak, he would never get any better Frazier.
The rest is history. In a titanic battle that captured the attention of the whole planet, Frazier dug deeper than ever before in winning a gruelling, epic 15 round decision; Joe’s 15th round left hook knockdown punctuating his victory. Frazier was now THE champion.
Nobody knew it at the time, although Yank and Eddie almost certainly suspected it, and strongly; but Frazier would never be the same force again. At 27-0, with the heavyweight crown all his, Joe could have retired, his legacy secure. Instead, after two easy wins over decent enough fighters in Terry Daniels and Ron Stander, Frazier made the calamitous mistake of agreeing to defend against an unbeaten George Foreman. Again, the rest is history.
Frazier was urged by all to call it a career, so brutally beaten had he been by the clubbing Foreman. Instead, his very real hate for Ali driving him on, Joe fought on. Ali, who won a lacklustre decision win over Frazier in their non-title fight rematch, then regained the crown in stunning fashion, this by chopping down Foreman in the African jungle. The rubber-match of rubber-matches had to happen.
At the time, however, Ali was on top of the world (again) while Frazier had been so badly hammered by Foreman, and he had later struggled against British trier Joe Bugner. There were no thoughts of Ali-Frazier III being the absolute classic we all recognize it as today. But Ali, who underestimated Joe in his training in the run-up to the fight in Manila, was made to fight the fight of his life. For 14 brutal and damaging rounds, Ali and Frazier tried to kill each other. “The Thrilla” is one of the greatest fights ever, yet it is also hard to watch today, when we all know the fate the two greats were met with. Neither man was ever fully healthy again.
Ali got the stoppage, with Futch pulling a near-blind Joe out at the conclusion of a sickening round 14. There were just two fights left for Frazier, both of them wholly unnecessary. Foreman again bombed Joe out, before Jumbo Cummings went home with a draw he and others felt should have been a win, this in December of 1981.
Only two men ever managed to defeat Frazier, these being Ali and Foreman. Yet to his dying day, Joe believed he “won all three” with Ali.
Frazier fought longer than he and Yank had felt would be the case all those years ago, and ultimately he paid the price. But no heavyweight is as respected, is as admired as a hard worker than Joe Frazier. Today he would have been 79 years old.