The definitive biography of former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier
By John J. Raspanti
I was a Muhammad Ali kid. I idolized “The Greatest.”
When he returned from exile to fight Joe Frazier in 1971, I was (more than engrossed) surprised by how Frazier seemed the total opposite of his opponent. Joe was quiet, shy, and humble. He would never ordain himself “The Greatest of All Times.”
It was hard to dislike him, even though I tried mightily. Especially after he whipped Ali on March 8, 1971. I thought I hated him, but that feeling didn’t last long. There was always something inherently good about Frazier, a fairness.
Even though I’ve read quite a bit about him over the years, there’s been nothing that captured the complete life of the former heavyweight champion of the world.
As Mark Kram Jr. expertly describes in his gripping new biography, “Smokin Joe, The Life of Joe Frazier,” there was a lot more to Frazier than his rivalry with Ali.
Born dirt poor in South Carolina, Frazier, the youngest of 12 siblings, grew up loving his wandering father and building his reputation as someone not to mess with. He ditched South Carolina at 18, making his way to the city of Brotherly Love with no money and marginal hope.
Things changed quickly when he met trainer, Yank Durham, who recognized a diamond in the rough. In 1964, Frazier found himself on the Olympic boxing team, after Buster Mathis was injured. Frazier made the most of his opportunity by capturing Olympic gold.
He turned professional soon after. Four years and 20 fights later, Frazier won the New York State Heavyweight title. He made five defenses against the likes of Oscar Bonavena and Jerry Quarry. A knockout victory over Jimmy Ellis in 1970 cemented his claim as the true heavyweight champion, even as Ali, soon to be reinstated, lurked in the shadows.
Even though I enjoyed Kram Jr’s writing on Frazier’s bouts, and love-hate relationship with Ali, it’s the behind the scenes interviews with Frazier’s relatives, friends, and loyal girlfriend, that provide the impetus for this tremendous bio. As Karm Jr. writes, Frazier was loaded with generosity, but also restless, and fueled at times with rage.
Beautifully written and compiled, "Smokin Joe" brings Frazier back to life in all his fistic glory while revealing the all-too-human side of the boxing legend.
It’s very rewarding.