The Olympic Games are upon us: Tokyo 2021 (postponed as they were, for one of the very few times in history, last year). Will we see any future boxing stars emerge? Let’s hope so. Back when Tokyo hosted The Olympics in 1964, global fight fans were introduced to a short, stocky, fiercely determined heavyweight from Philadelphia, a fighter with a savage left hook.
Joe Frazier, then aged just 20, became a hero (not a rich man, but a hero; the big money coming some years later). Having lost in the Olympic Trials, to Buster Mathis, who was awarded the three-round decision, Joe was told by his team to stick around, that “if Buster stubs his toe, he’ll be out and you’ll be in.” Frazier was never hurt in the bout with 19 year old Mathis and he later said, in his autobiography, how Mathis, as talented as he was, “had a heart like a small flame.”
Sure enough, with possible Olympic glory waiting for him, Mathis pulled out with an injured knuckle. Thankfully – for Joe and for American boxing – Frazier had made the trip to Tokyo as he had been advised to do, as an alternate. Mathis was out, Frazier was in.
Fighting with the style and approach he would go on to make famous, Frazier was a revelation at The Games. Not that he had things his own way in the bouts he engaged in in Tokyo. Joe’s first opponent, George Oywello of Canada, was blasted out in the first round. But opponent number-two, Athol McQueen, proved to be a tougher test. McQueen dropped Frazier in the opening round, buzzing Joe quite badly. But Frazier got up, in doing so giving the world a first glimpse of the sheer toughness and fighting heart he would become so utterly celebrated for. Frazier won his second bout by stoppage.
Now into the semi-finals, Joe met The Soviet Union’s Vadim Yemelyanov. Frazier scored yet another impressive stoppage, but he had picked up an injury. Frazier felt agonising pain in his left thumb. Not even thinking about pulling out, Joe soaked his left hand in ice. The thumb was in fact broken, yet the future “Smokin’ Joe” carried on with his mission: that of bringing that gold medal home with him.
Unable to fire his best weapon, his left hook, due to the pain (Joe’s injury a far more serious one to the knuckle injury Buster had picked up), Frazier had to battle it out for all three rounds in the final. Facing Germany’s Hans Huber, Joe used his right hand and proceeded to break Huber down. It was close but Frazier had done enough, winning the fight, and with it the gold medal, by a margin of 3 points to 2.
The Frazier legend had begun.
To this great fighter, pain was simply something that had to be fought off. In the pro ranks, Frazier really showed us all what he was made of; winning a version of the world title in 1968 (by taking out Mathis in a return meeting), and then capturing the undisputed crown in 1971 with the Fight of the Century win over Muhammad Ali.
But what Joe did in Tokyo all those years ago will continue to be celebrated. And respected.