JOE FRAZIER passed away on November 7, 2011. Here is our tribute to the heavyweight great as it appeared in the November 10, 2011 issue of Boxing News.
THE legend of Smokin’ Joe Frazier will live for as long as boxing bobs and weaves its maverick way forward into whatever craziness the future holds.
Frazier the man died on the night of Monday, November 7, aged 67, his body worn out by his last battle with cancer, and for anyone who can recall what it was like to be around when he was in his prime, the news was terribly sad.
For with Frazier’s passing we, who were once so very young, lost something of ourselves.
Frazier’s finest hour came, of course, at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971, when, in boxing’s first million dollar gate since Joe Louis fought Billy Conn, he reached out and touched greatness, hooking and slashing away at Muhammad Ali for 15 long, bitter rounds.
Sometimes a landmark occasion is just that, only that. This time it was also one of the most exciting, most gruelling fights in boxing history, with Ali hurting Frazier in the fifth and, in particular, the ninth when his raking punches had Joe bleeding from the nose and mouth.
In the end, though, Frazier was young enough, strong enough, blessed with the madness of youth enough, to carry out the menacing instructions of his trainer, the great Yank Durham.
“Get on his ass,” said Durham before the first bell. “Work him ’til he don’t want no more.”
And he did, oh, how he did.
Frazier said in his autobiography that nothing fazed him, he didn’t see any faces except Ali’s, didn’t hear anything.
“My focus,” he said, “was on the jiveass sucker in red velvet trunks.”
It was brutal, magnificently so. And the image that has stayed with me all these years was the sight of the knockdown in the last round when Frazier’s left hook finally put Ali down, the right side of his face already swelling, and the tassels on his boots twirling.
Ali got up, of course, hauled himself back to his unsteady legs, and saw it through, but it was Frazier’s night. At one point he had asked Durham what was keeping Ali up. Well, that was his greatness too, but the final bell came and Smokin’ Joe, for too long the butt of Ali’s jokes and insults, sneered at him. It was done.
“I was 27 years old,” he recalled. “And there would never be another night like it in my life.”
Both went away to hospital, and Frazier stayed there for six days, exhausted and with his kidneys malfunctioning. Time passed, he recovered, and as we know, fought on and on through the second and third fights with Ali, but Smokin’ Joe’s hour had already been and gone.
He lost the rematch in January 1974, and of course was pulled out of the Thrilla In Manila in October 1975 when Eddie Futch, who had succeeded Durham as main man in his corner, pulled him out after the 14th round with the words, now grown immortal: “Sit down son, it’s over. Nobody will ever forget what you did here today.”
Frazier was born in Beaufort County, South Carolina, in January 1944 to parents who worked 10 acres of poor farmland, trying to persuade enough cotton and melons to grow to feed the family. When times got especially hard, they would work for white farmers, who had the more productive soil.
When he was 15, Joseph William Frazier decided there must be more than this, and set off on a Greyhound bus for New York City. He got a job in a Coca-Cola plant, another on a construction site, then moved on to Philadelphia where he looked up a relative and found another job in a slaughterhouse. In his spare time, to get his weight down, he went to the Police Athletic League gym and met Durham and his sidekick Duke Dugent. The rest is history, as we like to say.
He lost to Buster Mathis in the 1964 Olympic Trials, but when Mathis broke a hand, Joe got the call. He was on the plane to Tokyo. He won gold, ignoring a broken thumb in the semi-finals to take a 3-2 split over a German, Hans Huber, in the final.
Today’s so-called elite athletes might pause a moment to consider this. When he got home there were no sponsors, no funding from government, no soft jobs that allowed him to concentrate on training. Frazier worked for $2.50 an hour with a removal firm. He took another one as a janitor. When he made his professional debut with a first-round stoppage of Woody Goss he picked up $125. Huge money, no doubt.
It was not until he had four wins in the bag that he was put on a salary by a group of businessmen calling themselves the Cloverlay Syndicate. He had to learn the job and it wasn’t always easy, in spite of the fire in his belly. Oscar Bonavena knocked him down twice, but Frazier won a split decision. He had to go through old-timers like Doug Jones and Eddie Machen, and the tough-nut Canadian, George Chuvalo. Nobody, but nobody, stopped Chuvalo. Frazier did.
When Ali lost his licence and livelihood over his Vietnam stance, the World Boxing Association organised a tournament to find his successor. Frazier stayed out of it, which hurt it. Instead he got the backing of the New York State Athletic Commission and, in March 1968, overcame old amateur rival Buster Mathis in 11 rounds.
As the WBA tournament meandered on, and eventually produced the talented, colourless Jimmy Ellis, Ali’s old sparring partner, as its champion, Frazier made his reputation, winning a couple of mismatches but also bludgeoning Jerry Quarry until the Californian’s right eye shut and he could no longer see the left hooks smashing into his face. And Frazier beat Bonavena again, this time over 15 rounds.
The Ellis fight was a unification natural. (In those days, they happened). I remember watching that on TV, Frazier’s rolling, relentless attacks and heavy left hooks dropping Ellis twice and forcing his retirement.
If it was a display of left-hooking you wanted to see, then the near-execution of light-heavyweight champion Bob Foster in November 1970 in Detroit was about as perfect, as ruthlessly exciting, as it gets. He was, very suddenly, at the top of his game.
And so they made the Fight of the Century with Ali, who had come back from his three-year exile to cut up Quarry and stop Bonavena. Ringside seats were $150, each man was guaranteed $2.5 million, and they delivered. Ali’s ceaseless taunting of Frazier seemed playful to some, but there was a searing, nasty edge to it. Frazier was a Baptist, Ali a member of the Nation of Islam, and noisy, belligerent supporter of the African-American revolution that had been gathering pace for the past decade or so.
As is the way of these things, quieter voices get drowned out. Frazier didn’t speak his mind on such things, or if he did, very few heard him. But when Ali taunted him, made him seem slow-witted, politically and morally stupid, Frazier’s anger festered. And the years did not ease it.
In his almost painfully slow old age Frazier refused to bend. In a documentary near the end of his life, he looked at the images of Ali, by now confined by the mask of Parkinson’s Disease, and showed no sorrow.
Some were shocked when he said, slowly, deliberately, without sympathy: “I did that to him. I did that.”
Several times Ali tried to mend the damage, to build the bridges and make friends. Frazier would have none of it. The rage still burned and it seems he did not want to extinguish it.
After he beat Ali, he cashed in. He took his soul band The Knockouts to Europe for a fun tour, he had a couple of ridiculous defences against the horribly overmatched Terry Daniels and Ron Stander.
He enjoyed himself, felt, no doubt, as unbeatable as unbeaten fighters do. And he failed to notice George Foreman sneaking up from the Mexico City Olympics, where he succeeded Frazier as the best amateur heavyweight in the world, all the way to Kingston, Jamaica, in January 1973.
Foreman hadn’t lost, had mostly battered and clobbered opposition that was often modest and sometimes not even that.
Almost everyone picked Smokin’ Joe to blast the big, robotic young man into oblivion, and the shock of the knowledge that he had lost inside two rounds to Foreman – not just lost, but had been knocked down six times, once even hit so hard that his feet came up off the canvas in a kind of hop – was incredible. Smokin’ Joe, who had destroyed Ali, was just too tough for that kind of thing to happen.
And yet it had, and we just couldn’t have known that emotionally he just wasn’t the same man any more. The youth had left him. Once he had beaten Ali, there was nothing to inspire him any more.
As we know he went on. After all, he wasn’t even 30 yet. He came to London, had a hard time subduing an on-form Joe Bugner, then lost the rematch with Ali, who almost stopped him in the second round.
He was still too good for Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Ellis, both of whom he stopped. Then came Manila and the magnificence of the third Ali fight, for the heavyweight championship after Ali’s own crazy, beautiful destruction of Foreman in Zaire. By that autumn of 1975, both were declining, but still filled with enough talent and greatness to let it all out just once more. Ali won, but admitted he almost lost. They had to drag him up off his stool and he collapsed when he realised that Frazier had retired and it was over. Ali called it The Near Room, the place next to death.
They both should have finished then. Both went on. Frazier seemed barely recognisable when he took on Foreman in a place called Uniondale in June 1976. He had shaved his head, was thicker-set, slowed, horribly flawed. Foreman took five to stop him this time.
Against the wishes of his family, Joe gave it one last try after five and a half years in retirement. Nobody apart from him could see the point. We hoped he wouldn’t get hurt. Maybe that fight, a 10-round draw with heavy-handed ex-convict Floyd “Jumbo” Cummings, took something from him. Maybe it didn’t. If he’d won, he would have boxed on. If he had lost, well, nobody wanted to see him lose.
In retirement he bought the gym where he had worked in those early years. Boxing, after all, was all he knew. He trained his sons Marvis and Hector – but came out of it badly when he matched Marvis with heavyweight champion Larry Holmes and had to watch him blasted out in one round. Marvis would eventually take over the gym that bore the family name, and Joe would sit and watch the fighters work. At one point he had living quarters there too.
Quite what he thought when his daughter, Jacqueline, boxed Laila Ali, Muhammad’s daughter, over eight two-minute rounds in a weird commemmoration of their fathers’ epic fight of three decades before, I can’t imagine.
And so he went on into the twilight years, looking older, sounding older, sometimes, it was said, struggling to cope, but always – always – the same, the great Smokin’ Joe.
My own memory of him was from Madison Square Garden, in 1995 at an Oscar De La Hoya fight. I was standing in the media area when I felt two hands on my shoulders.
“Excuse me, my man, just coming through…”
I turned, half-surprised, to find the great man, squeezing by to find his own seat. He grabbed my hand, shook it, said something that should have, but didn’t, stick in my memory.
That’s maybe as it should be, but what can never be erased is the sight of Frazier, that long-ago night in the spring of 1971, blazing forward, his face a mass of lumps and bruises, doing to the man we still call The Greatest what no man had done before.
Ali prayed for him in his final hours. And so, I’m sure, did so many more of us.