For all Joe Frazier achieved, the former world heavyweight boxing champion, who has died of liver cancer aged 67, was destined to remain in the shadow of his nemesis, Muhammad Ali, who twice beat him in the most famous trilogy of fights the sport has ever produced. The third of those 1970s encounters — memorably dubbed the “Thrilla in Manila” — is generally remembered as the greatest fight of all time.
A crowd-pleasing heavyweight, Frazier’s relentless attacking approach included one of the most savage left hooks in boxing. Despite invariably conceding height to his opponents, the 1.82m Frazier, who had a crouching and weaving style similar to the one which made Mike Tyson such a daunting proposition several years later, used his stocky physique to unload frightening hooks to head and body.
“I like to hit guys and see their knees tremble,” he said. “I like to feel my strength and go for broke.” It was this uncompromising attitude that earned him the nickname “Smokin’ Joe”.
Frazier’s feared left hook floored Ali in the final round of their first encounter and helped him clinch victory in what became known as the “Fight of the Century” at Madison Square Garden, New York, on March 8 1971. “I was as mad as a junkyard dog at Ali,” Frazier remembered. “A lot of people went to the fight that night to see [Ali’s] head knocked off — and I did my best to oblige them.”
The fast-talking Ali invariably delighted in using the more taciturn Frazier as his stooge. His relentless verbal putdowns of the man who became his greatest rival contained a cruel edge, and the effect of Ali’s teasing lingered in Frazier’s memory long after both men had hung up their gloves.
Frazier never forgave his rival for branding him “an Uncle Tom”. Ali also appeared to delight in calling him “ignorant” — a label Frazier hated more than any other.
This festering resentment came to a head on January 23 1974, when the two men ended up wrestling on the floor of an ABC studio in New York, five days before their second fight at Madison Square Garden. Although Frazier had reluctantly accepted an invitation from the broadcaster Howard Cosell to watch a tape of the first Ali-Frazier fight, the interview proceeded without incident until Frazier mentioned that Ali had to attend hospital after their fight. Seemingly annoyed, Ali replied: “Everybody knows I went to hospital for 10 minutes. You were in the hospital for three weeks. You’re ignorant, Joe.”
This exchange led to both men grappling. Some observers felt that while Ali was play-acting, Frazier certainly was not. Each was fined $5 000 by the New York State Athletic Commission for “deplorable conduct demeaning to boxing”. “I never liked Ali,” Frazier once reflected. “Sometimes, if we was alone talking about the wife and kids, he was OK. But as soon as someone else came in he’d start up and I couldn’t talk to him. Before we fought, the words hurt me more than the punches.”
Frazier was born into a large, poor family in Beaufort, South Carolina. His first job consisted of picking vegetables grown by prosperous white landowners. Having dropped out of high school, he moved to New York at the age of 15, and then moved on to Philadelphia, where he worked in a slaughterhouse and first entered a boxing gym to lose weight.
‘An outstanding professional career’
An impressive run of successes as an amateur was abruptly halted by defeat by Buster Mathis in the US Olympic trials of 1964. Mathis suffered the misfortune of breaking his thumb, however, so Frazier was dramatically added to the United States team for Tokyo, where he won gold at heavyweight level, beating Hans Huber of Germany in the final.
This was to prove the platform for an outstanding professional career. Frazier duly won his first 11 fights by knockout. On March 4 1968 he dispatched Mathis to claim the New York state world title. By stopping Jerry Quarry in seven rounds in New York in June 1969 he earned his shot at the undisputed world crown. On February 16 1970 Frazier halted an outgunned Jimmy Ellis in the fifth round at Madison Square Garden to become champion.
Although Ali had been stripped of the crown following his refusal to undertake military service in Vietnam, many still regarded him as the true world champion. Frazier’s points victory against Ali in front of a massive worldwide television audience at Madison Square Garden in 1971 suggested that he was destined for a long reign, yet a bewildered Frazier found himself derided in some quarters as the antithesis of Ali’s black militancy and anti-war views.
Frazier was particularly dismayed when Boxing Illustrated posed the question: “Is Joe Frazier a white champion in a black skin?” He subsequently found himself alienated by much of the black community.
Following further successful defences, Frazier’s world title reign ended in chilling fashion in Kingston, Jamaica, on January 22 1973, when the towering George Foreman floored him six times on the way to knocking him out in two painfully one-sided rounds. Frazier re-established himself with an exciting points win over Britain’s Joe Bugner at Earls Court six months later, only to drop a clear points decision to Ali in their rematch at Madison Square Garden in January 1974.
Frazier demanded a swift return and his knockout victories over Quarry and Ellis set the stage for the Thrilla in Manila in the Philippines on October 1 1975. Their third and final showdown was given added spice by the fact that Ali had reclaimed the world crown with a sensational knockout of Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire.
Confronting Frazier at a press conference he announced: “It will be a killa, a chilla and a thrilla when I get the gorilla in Manilla.” Frazier angrily recounted how his children were taunted by the nickname at school.
Following a breathtaking contest of frightening intensity Ali’s arm was raised after Eddie Futch, Frazier’s trainer, refused to allow his battered fighter go out for the 15th and final round. “Sit down, son, it’s all over,” Futch famously told Frazier. “But no one will ever forget what you did here today.” Frazier himself recalled: “Man, I hit Ali with punches that’d bring down the walls of a city — lawdy, lawdy, he’s a great champion.”
Eight months later, a diminished Frazier again took on Foreman, only to announce his retirement after being stopped in five. For a time he concentrated on a singing career before launching a brief comeback. On December 3 1981, Frazier fought out a lacklustre 10-round draw against former convict Floyd “Jumbo” Cummings. It was the last bout of a 37-fight career in which he won 32, drew one and lost four.
Frazier’s son, Marvis, unsuccessfully challenged Larry Holmes for the world heavyweight title in November 1983. In June 2001 Frazier saw his daughter Jacqui drop a narrow points decision to Ali’s daughter Laila at Verona, New York.
In 1990, Frazier was inducted into boxing’s International Hall of Fame. His autobiography, Smokin’ Joe, was published in 1996.
But Muhammad wouldn’t have made it without him
Without Smokin’ Joe, the iconic status Muhammad Ali came to enjoy in sport might never have happened. It is one of boxing’s oldest sayings that great fighters are made from the great fights they have, and the fighting styles of Frazier and Ali blended perfectly to create a stunning trilogy of contests. The fact that the pair had a genuine animosity for each other, at times nearer to pure hatred, only added to a rivalry that captivated fans as much as any in the history of boxing.
Frazier traded on snarling, swarming aggression, closing down the distance between himself and his opponent, bobbing and weaving his way through some punches while taking plenty of others before unleashing his trademark hooks to head and body with a ferocity that few could withstand. The massive-punching George Foreman was able to blow the smaller Frazier away with a succession of huge uppercuts when Foreman took Frazier’s title in 1973, but Ali never had the one-punch power to repel Joe and had to rely on his boxing skills and legendary reserves of courage to prevail.
The finest moment of Frazier’s career was unquestionably when he floored Ali in the last round on his way to a unanimous points decision when they fought for the first time for the world heavyweight title in 1971. Ali’s skills proved too much for Frazier when they fought for a second time, in 1974, at the same venue. But the brutal conflict of the Thrilla in Manila is the one indelibly etched into boxing history. Ring magazine made it their “fight of the year” for 1975 and, with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, it is surely true to say this was the heavyweight fight of all-time. He may have lost in Manila, and “great” can be an overused word in sport, but Frazier showed that there can be greatness in defeat, and his contribution to the sport will never be forgotten. — John Rawling