He came forward like a live locomotive - ducking and punching with violent artistry. Joe wouldn’t stop smoking, even when blinded or staggered.
I was a Muhammad Ali kid. To me, Ali was, and always will be, the best pure boxer I ever saw. He was loaded with natural talent and a gift for gab. I preferred the sweet science to the savage slugger.
Then there was Joe Frazier.
Joe was quiet, shy, and humble. He would never ordain himself “The Greatest of All Times.” No writer ever referred to him as the “Louisville Lip” or “The Mouth That Roared.”
He was “Smokin” Joe Frazier and smoke is what he did in the ring. If a fighter’s nickname empowers him, then “Smokin" Joe’s did just that. He didn’t move, slip, and slide. He came forward like a live locomotive - ducking and punching with violent artistry. Joe wouldn’t stop smoking, even when blinded or staggered.
Frazier was born in Beaufort, S.C. on Jan.12, 1944. He won an Olympic gold medal in 1964 and turned professional a year later. His championship ascent began in 1968 when he stopped amateur nemesis Buster Mathis in the eleventh round, thereby laying claim to the New York state heavyweight title. Frazier defended the title five times, defeating such names as Oscar Bonevena and Jerry Quarry.
He won the WBC and WBA heavyweight championship in 1970 when he knocked out Jimmy Ellis with his signature left hook. He did the same thing to light heavyweight champion Bob Foster nine months later. Still lurking in the shadows was the controversial Muhammad Ali, who had been stripped of his title for refusing induction into the military during the Vietnam War. Ali had been banished from boxing for 3 ½ years. Nevertheless, because he hadn’t lost his title in the ring, many considered him the legitimate heavyweight champion.
I was twelve years old and living in Oklahoma when Ali and Frazier engaged in what was simply called “The Fight.” In those days, the radio provided updates every fifteen minutes on the biggest bouts. I was confident that Ali would emerge victorious over the lesser-known Frazier. My dad had warned me about Frazier, but I was unmoved.
Nobody could beat “The Greatest.”
The problem was Joe Frazier wasn’t a “nobody.” He was “Smokin” Joe and that night at the historic Madison Square Garden in New York City, he was on fire. Frazier won the fight and broke the heart of a twelve-year-old boy in Oklahoma. I tried to make myself hate him after that. He had defeated my idol so I had every right.
However, I couldn’t hate Joe Frazier.
Frazier had class and dignity. I could see it then. When he was in the hospital after the first Ali fight, I worried about him. There was no Internet then to check on his condition. I had to listen to the radio or read the newspaper.
When my dad told me a few days after the fight that Frazier was out of the hospital, I was relieved.
I was fully in Frazier’s corner when he fought the hulking George Foreman in Kingston, Jamaica. As Howard Cosell screamed “Down goes Frazier,” I was flabbergasted.
Ali and Frazier got together again a few months later. I was thrilled when Ali won the 12-round decision but my respect for Frazier continued to grow. They fought one more time in 1975 - two living legends in “The Thrilla in Manilla.”
I’ve watched the bout many times over the years and consider it perhaps the greatest fight in heavyweight history. Ali started fast, and Frazier, supposedly past his prime and fighting for a paycheck, started to smoke like the Frazier of 1971.
The immense heat took its toll on both fighters, as did their punches. Ali survived to win by TKO in the fourteenth round. After the fight he said famously, “It was the closet I’ve come to death.”
Frazier was to box a few more times and then retire. His career record was 32-4 with 27 knockouts. He went on to train fighters and help raise a family. Over the next several years, I would catch him on television from time to time with his son Marvis.
As I remember Joe Frazier, I feel a deep sadness for a fighter who during his lifetime, never received the recognition that he deserved because he was overshadowed by the greatness of Muhammed Ali.
Frazier was a great boxer in his own right, a former heavyweight champion, an Olympic gold medalist in 1964, and a member of high standing of the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
He was also a good man.
Rest in peace Champion. Your likes will never be seen again.
Excepted from "Blood on my Notebook" by John J. Raspanti