Tokyo ’64 – When The Great Joe Frazier Refused To Let A Little Thing Like A Busted Thumb Prevent Him From Winning Gold

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.

16 thoughts on “Tokyo ’64 – When The Great Joe Frazier Refused To Let A Little Thing Like A Busted Thumb Prevent Him From Winning Gold”

  1. Not many fighters are willing to die in a boxing ring. If the Foreman fight wasn’t stopped Joe would still be getting up to continue. The same when Eddie Futch stopped the Thrilla when Joe couldn’t see and was arguing with Eddie not to stop it. The great Alexis Arguello sat on the canvas and let himself be counted out in the second Aaron Pryor fight, later explaining he didn’t want to lose his life. For Joe retreat was never an option. Ron Lyle who died three times on an operating table after being stabbed in prison expressed his admiration for Joe. I personally met Joe in a diner on the Jersey Shore after one of his “Knockouts Band” gigs. Gracious, quiet, polite. My boxing students would on occasion go to Philadelphia to train in his gym. They always came back saying what a pleasant, humble guy he was. He was a man’s man…..a real man! Always to be admired and never to be forgotten!

  2. Joe Frazier you were and will be remembered as true greatness you made Ali great also everybody remembers

  3. To this day ,through all the Tysons,hollyfield,Lenox lewis,and even more today with the likes of fury and wilder,we will never,have never, and Only once in a life get to see class ,honor and great fights,fighters, and grit like we saw from the fighters of that era!!!!!Hands down the greatest fighting era in the history of boxing or any type of fighting including the MMA

    • If Joe Frazier had been 6foot 3inches, he would have never been defeat. He would have been pure hell for foreman and Ali

  4. What a humble warrior Joe Frazier was!!! In his “fight of the century” battle with Ali, Frazier had to endure so many insults from the self described great one, yet Frazier ignored it all and put a whipping on Ali that surprised many people including Ali.
    Rest in Peace Smokin Joe!

  5. I’ve always wondered what would have happen if Frazier was as big as George Forman!! Their two fights would only have been one as that legendary smokin’ left hook would have blasted Forman into early retirement, and some others into an early grave!

    • Size has nothing to do with it at heavyweight its style and desire. George had a style perfectly suited to Joe’s style. Plus Joe was the kind of fighter who put on mileage fast and hard. He peaked after the first Ali fight and was never the same. Hell in 75 both he and Ali were both shot that’s why their third fight in Manila turned into a death struggle. Also I might add the history of the heavyweight division is littered with huge men who get chopped down by much smaller men.

    • Size does not matter one bit at heavyweight. It was a question of styles . Joe was the type of fighter that put on mileage and wear very fast. He had fought Ali by the point

  6. Greatest fights of him do you remember is the greatest greatest fighter in the world..

  7. Smoking Joe was relentless. Always putting pressure on you never stopping. When you got hit by Smokin Joe you what hurt.

  8. Smokin Joe nobody like him. Heart of a lion and a greatleft hook to go with it. R.I.P Joe. Miss you.

    • Smoking joe was not that fast he was not that talented but he would swarm you like mosquitos and the heart of a lion RIP to the true original swarming champ

Comments are closed.