If Joe Frazier was still alive, if he had not sadly succumbed to liver cancer on November 7, 2011, the former heavyweight king who added so much to that golden era that was the 1970s would be 77 now. Frazier’s death, a decade ago today, saddened many, both fans and former ring adversaries (fellow heavyweight legend George Foreman was so upset by Joe’s death he was unable to attend the funeral; leaving Muhammad Ali, himself in extremely poor health, to pay his respects).
Frazier was the epitome of a champion, and of an underdog who was able to rise above the odds that were stacked against him. Not a big heavyweight at a little over 5’11,” with a reach of just 73” (compare that to Foreman’s reach of 79” or Ali’s at 78”), Frazier also, quite unbelievably, fought with only full vision in one eye for many years of his career. For all of his big fights, Joe was partially blind – as in legally blind – in his left eye. Frazier worked on his soon to be fearsome left hook in the gym. Frazier needed to whack an opponent with his left hand, to get his man in position where he could see him fully. Then, with his opponent moved into position, Frazier would go to work with both hands (his right hand becoming a serious weapon only late on in his career).
Frazier was all heart. Coming up the harder than hard way, Frazier was willing to give everything he had in order to win. For a time, during his 1969 to 1971 prime, Frazier was a relentless, unbeatable fighting machine. Fine fighters like Jerry Quarry, and Jimmy Ellis fell to Frazier, and then “Smokin’ Joe” scored THE win of his career, this the 15 round decision win over intense rival Ali. Frazier had done it all, he had reached the mountain top. He had also peaked; he would never get any better as a fighter – the night of March 8, 1971 saw Frazier put everything together in brutal harmony.
In fact, Frazier soon lost the crown to Foreman in devastating fashion and his hard career along with his pressure fighting style and approach had taken its toll. Joe had just one great fight left in him and he saved it for the fighter, the rival, the man he hated: Ali. The third war between these two titans thrilled the world in 1975 but after that near-death experience (for both men), Frazier should have retired. He had nothing left to prove, nothing left to fight for.
It’s crazy to think Frazier and Ali both fought on after the hell they each went through in Manila. Frazier again fell to Foreman, while a foolish 1981 comeback attempt saw a 37 year old Frazier struggle to a kindly awarded draw with Floyd “Jumbo” Cummings. Only two men ever defeated Frazier, this being Ali and Foreman. And you can argue how Frazier never lost to anyone when he was in his absolute fighting prime. The Frazier of 1969 to 1971 would have given ANY heavyweight in history nothing but hell.
Foreman and Larry Holmes (who came along a little later) are the only two surviving heavyweight champions from that super-special time. It really doesn’t seem as though Frazier has been gone a full decade. Fight fans the world over will never, ever forget Joe Frazier. Eddie Futch was bang on the money correct when he said what he said to Joe in that sweltering corner of the ring in Manila all those years ago.