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CBC Sports

Frazier walked among giants

Posted: Monday, November 7, 2011 | 11:51 PM

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In this March 8, 1971, file photo, Joe Frazier lands a left on Muhammad Ali during the 15th round of their heavyweight title boxing bout in New York. Frazier won a unanimous decision. (Associated Press) In this March 8, 1971, file photo, Joe Frazier lands a left on Muhammad Ali during the 15th round of their heavyweight title boxing bout in New York. Frazier won a unanimous decision. (Associated Press)

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Joe Frazier, part of the greatest rivalry in sports history, was usually defined by what, and who, he wasn't. He wasn't Muhammad Ali, wasn't particularly articulate nor a defining athlete for a generation. He was Smokin' Joe inside and outside of the ring, often complaining bitterly about injustices real and perceived.

Joe Frazier, part of the greatest rivalry in sports history, was usually defined by what, and who, he wasn't.

He wasn't Muhammad Ali, wasn't particularly articulate nor a defining athlete for a generation. He was Smokin' Joe inside and outside of the ring, often complaining bitterly about injustices real and perceived.

"Down Goes Frazier" is a popular sports catchphrase based on his lowest moment, possibly the lowest moment of any notable heavyweight champion, when he was bounced off the canvas six times in two rounds by the much bigger George Foreman.

The civic leaders of Philadelphia would pile on years later, choosing to erect a statue commemorating the white movie fighter who toiled in the slaughterhouse, not the snorting, ferocious one who actually did hammer the slabs of meat on his way up, Frazier.

But no big name heavyweight champion got more out of his ability. None possessed a will as giant.

Few in the history of sport overcame greater odds than Frazier, who at a listed five-foot-11, was among the shortest heavyweight champions of all time.

He was among 13 children in his family, his father a South Carolina sharecropper who had lost his arm in an automobile accident.

Frazier left for the Northeast at 15 and was aimless for a couple of years before taking up boxing in earnest. He ended up in Philly and the Broad Street Gym under the tutelage of Yank Durham.

He actually lost in the Olympic trials to the much bigger Buster Mathis, but Mathis injured his hand. Frazier went on to Tokyo and captured the gold medal in the heavyweight division.
 
Legend has it when Frazier first encountered the man with whom he would be forever linked, who had won the Olympic heavyweight title four years earlier, Ali - then Cassius Clay - advised him he should drop down to light heavyweight because he was too small.
 
Wishful thinking.

Aside from tough Argentine Oscar Bonavena, Frazier's rise to the top of the heavyweight rankings met with little resistance. He was the first to stop iron-chinned Canadian heavyweight George Chuvalo, then a veteran of over 60 bouts, and he also disposed of contenders Mathis, Doug Jones and Jerry Quarry.

'Truth Machine'

He draped himself on opponents with relentless pressure, bobbing and weaving under their punches and rising up with a two-fisted attack to the body and the head, highlighted by a pulverizing left hook.
 
Sportswriter-turned-television commentator Larry Merchant aptly described Frazier as a "Truth Machine" who tested an opponent's willingness to go beyond normal levels of pain.

With Ali on the sidelines after refusing induction into the military during the Vietnam War, Frazier stopped Jimmy Ellis in five rounds in early 1970 to become the undisputed champion of the division among active fighters.

Ali was finally granted a license again that same year, and after two tune-up fights, what would become known as The Fight was arranged for March 8, 1971.

It was a rare meeting of two bona fide champions, long before boxing's power brokers would pervert the meaning of that word through a surfeit of "world" titles and absurd decisions.

The build up to the fight saw the loquacious Ali taunt Frazier mercilessly for his lack of intelligence, and worse, called him an Uncle Tom who was a pawn of the white establishment.

Ali resented the fact Frazier took advantage of his misfortune and didn't speak up politically on his behalf when he was threatened with jail time. Frazier was admittedly uninterested and uncomfortable being anything other than a fighter.

It was a curious attack at best. Of the two fighters, Ali was the one with a white trainer and white blood in his lineage. Frazier had grown up almost desperately poor. But Frazier couldn't compete in the war of words and could have enjoyed more defenders in the press; Ali, once reviled, was made a more sympathetic figure due to his three-year exile and the rising counterculture opposition to the war.
 
Frazier was described in one contemporary newspaper account as a Man Out of Time. 
 
It was likely the most anticipated fight in boxing history - only the rematch between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling would probably compare - and it lived up to the hype. One of the nearly 20,500 fans in attendance at a star-studded Madison Square Garden died of a heart attack.

An even fight turned in the 11th when Frazier wobbled Ali with a left, and he incited one of the biggest roars in arena sports history when he decked the Louisville fighter in the 15th and final round to clinch a decision win.

The winner was 27 years old and unbeaten in 26 fights, but enjoying the victory would have to wait. Jubilant in the ring immediately after the win, he would have to spend several days in hospital after the gruelling fight. He would fight just 10 more times, winning six.

Both men earned $2.5 million US for their efforts; boxing observers estimated they'd have earned at least twice as much if they'd foregone the guaranteed rate for a take of the closed-circuit revenues.

Frazier won by unanimous decision and made two easy defences before the disaster with Foreman in 1972.

Frazier was outboxed by Ali when both were mere contenders in their second meeting in early 1974, but the final bout in their trilogy a year-and-a-half later defined their careers, and the rest of their lives.

Writing in the New York Times about The Thrilla in Manila, the great sportswriter Dave Anderson said the two rivals "maintained a level of boxing violence seldom seen."

While the official scorecards had Ali ahead comfortably, many boxing observers thought Frazier was winning through 12 rounds but Ali summoned a second wind and pummelled him at will over the bout's next two rounds.

Trainer Eddie Futch decided to not allow a grotesquely swollen Frazier out for the 15th. Frazier agreed with the decision at the time but later added it to his list of resentments.

He fought just twice more in five years. (It's a measure of his incredible self-belief and stubbornness that he thought it wise to try on Foreman for size again in 1976, losing in five rounds)

Frazier managed and trained a slew of young Philly fighters, most notably his son Marvis, who like many fighting scion couldn't nearly match his father's accomplishments.

While not naturally charismatic, Frazier enjoyed being a social animal, sometimes too much.

As early as the Ellis win he was talking about retiring so that he could "sing rock 'n' roll" with his band. Some called it warbling, but he didn't care. Frazier rarely passed up a promoter's invite to appear at a fight card to mingle and sign for fans, included on more than one occasion in Canada in recent years.

No holding back

He called Ali a "great champ" after their final fight, expressing astonishment at Ali's ability to withstand what he said were some of the hardest punches of his career. And when the pair appeared at functions together in their advancing years, it was civil.

But with Ali eventually silenced by the effects of Parkinson's, it was usually Frazier's turn to talk. He rarely passed up an opportunity to throw in a barb, even revelling in the damage his punches caused his famous rival.

He joked in 1996 that he wished Ali had fallen into Atlanta's Olympic cauldron after that famous moment. It might have sounded ghastly to the uninitiated, but to longtime boxing fans, it was darkly comical.

"People ask me if I feel sorry for him. Nope. Fact is, I don't give a damn," Frazier said in his 1996 autobiography. "They want me to love him, but I'll open up the graveyard and bury his ass when the Lord chooses to take him."

Unfortunately, Frazier got the equation wrong one last time.

Frazier never in a million years would have used a word like hagiography, but he saw how over time the thornier parts of the Ali story (controversial views on race and women, for example) were being forgotten or smoothed over in countless depictions of his life.

The eulogies will undoubtedly focus on the two great men, but I think it's important to mention the next one in the heavyweight title succession.

In the 1980s, Ali was forever changed and Frazier never really did change. Unbeknownst to everyone, and away from the public eye for over a decade, Foreman was in the process of changing himself to a degree almost unprecedented in public American life, a comeback Dick Nixon would have envied.

During that halcyon early 1970s era of heavyweight boxing, Foreman was much more unlikable than Frazier, a scowling, often monosyllabic brute.

Foreman found God after his boxing career apparently ended for good in 1977. When he re-emerged en route to his improbable recapturing of a heavyweight belt in 1994, he had obviously studied just a bit from the Ali playbook.

He was a garrulous, jolly bear to the media and fans and also hit the jackpot outside the ring endorsing a certain well-known product (Ali and Frazier, like many ex-champs, didn't have great luck with money matters).

That he was able to do some of this was in large part due to the fact that he made peace with his own bitter defeat against Ali, one that had consumed him for years.

Smokin' Joe could never quite get to that point.

He was a true fighter until the end.

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