Boxing News tribute to a warrior – June 25, 1976
HE came smoking out of the Deep South to win the heavyweight championship and whip a living legend. Now, at 32, Joe Frazier’s fires have finally been quenched by time and the effects of some of the most punishing fights in ring history.
“Now,” he said, “I want to sit back and watch the young men growing up around me going after the title. I’m going to live happily ever after.”
George Foreman’s post-fight comment: “Frazier is the most courageous man I ever saw in a boxing ring” will no doubt be echoed by many.
Joe was incredibly brave even by the absolute standards of a sport where the password is courage. Frazier wanted to carry on even after Foreman’s thudding blows had rendered him wobbly-legged and defenceless. But the referee heeded trainer Eddie Futch’s pleas and stopped the fight.
Frazier gained his place among the ring greats by becoming the first to defeat Muhammad Ali. It was the first time two undefeated heavyweights had fought for the title. Maybe the almost superhuman effort by Frazier took too much out of him. He had two further great fights with Ali but lost them both.
But the Frazier who welded together his iron determination and unquenchable will to win in the first fight with Ali just might have licked any heavyweight in history.
It was his supreme moment and yet he was never quite the same fighter afterwards. He had to march through pain and punishment, blood and bruises to conquer Ali.
Frazier nearly knocked Ali down in the 11th and he put victory beyond doubt by flooring Ali with a sensational left hook in the 15th and final round.
But Ali snapped with jabs and lashed at Frazier’s head with hooks, uppercuts and right hands to leave Joe’s face a mess of lumps and bumps.
Ali still maintains he won because he landed more punches. But Frazier made the fight great because of his remorseless pressure-fighting. He kept beavering away during those long moments when Ali stalled. He deserved his victory. Frazier was what pro-fighting is all about. He was a hungry fighter who made good through the prize ring.
He was the last of 13 children, son of a sharecropper in South Carolina. His father, the late Rubin Frazier, lost his left arm in a shotgun accident shortly before Joe’s birth. He always said his 13th child would be “somethin’ special”.
Joe was married at 16 and left the South for Philadelphia to find work, taking his bride Florence with him.
“You don’t get nowhere standin’ still,” Joe recalled.
He started boxing in the local PAL gym in Philly because he was overweight, especially around the hips and couldn’t fit into the type of clothes he wanted to wear.
As the weight came off, he discovered he was really good in the ring.
By the time he was 20 Joe was a top-class amateur heavyweight.
His routine was gruelling; roadworks in the morning, eight hours of tough work in the slaughterhouse, and then hard gym sessions in the evening.
Joe was outpointed by big Buster Mathis in the 1964 US Olympic trials, but Buster suffered a broken finger and Frazier took his place as America’s heavyweight in Tokyo.
Joe busted up his right hand against a Russian in the semi-finals but shrugged off the pain and went in punching with left hooks to outpoint Hans Huber, a towering but apprehensive German, to grab the gold medal.
The hero returned to hard times in Philly. His broken hand meant he was unable to work. His savings ran out. Christmas 1964 looked like a being cold and desolate for Frazier and his wife and three children.
“I hadn’t seen a pay cheque since I stopped work to join the US Olympic boxing squad in September,” he said at the time. “There were hospital bills to pay. Nobody seemed to give a damn. They say Olympic heroes are soon forgotten and I was convinced this was true.”
But newspaper articles drew Frazier’s plight to the public’s attention and offers of help poured in. A restaurant owner gave Joe a cheque for $500 and two turkeys. He was set up with a comfortable job in a supermarket.
Guided by his tutor and advisor, Yank Durham, Joe turned professional with a syndicate of US business men under the Cloverleaf banner.
Joe’s first pro fight was an easy one-round win over Woody Floss at Philadelphia in August, 1965. His drive to the heavyweight crown was underway.
He was soon tagged Smokin’ Joe because of his aggressive storming style of fighting and the power of his left-hooking.
The left hook had long been the trademark of Philadelphia-trained fighters. Joe was one of the best. He hit hard his with right, but it was those left hooks that invariably did the business.
Yank Durham fashioned Joe’s style, getting him to bob and weave his way in. He saw no need teaching Joe how to move in and jab, because as he described it: “Joe destroys a man with power. It takes a boxer 10 rounds to do what Joe gets done in two or three.”
When Yank died in August 1973, it was a bitter blow to Frazier. Fighter and trainer had been close friends. But Eddie Futch, who had worked in Frazier camp, took over from the Durham and was in Joe’s corner with the second and third fights with Ali.
Frazier was a bit more streamlined in his earlier days, weighing around 14½ stone at a height of 5ft 11in. His weight went up to 15st 4lb when he lost the championship to George Foreman in 1973 and he was a surprising 16st 0½lb for last week’s final contest of his career against Foreman.
Joe was always tremendously exciting to watch. Yank Durham dismissed suggestions that Joe was a black Rocky Marciano. He said it was more accurate to think of Joe as a bigger version of Henry Armstrong, with the same persistent attack.
Of course, Frazier sometimes got tagged when he was coming in but he kept moving his head to slip jabs and was not a sitting target for counter punches.
But, anyway, he was always prepared to take a few if need be, just so he could get in firing range and unload his own artillery.
Frazier’s pressing style and hitting power was too much for opponent after opponent as he blazed his spectacular trail to the heavyweight crown.
He showed his grit, when coming off the canvas to punch through to a split points win over Oscar Bonavena at Madison Square Garden in September 1966, his 12th straight win and the first of his fights to go the distance.
Frazier looked in desperate trouble when he was dropped twice in the second round by Oscar. One more knockdown in the round and he would automatically have lost the fight under New York rules.
But Joe steamed in instead of trying to grab, and his sheer ferocity had Bonavena giving ground.
That was Frazier’s way, give and take, ask no quarter and give none in return.
He had a habit of laughing in the ring but Yank Durham always said: “It’s just because he enjoys fighting, not that he likes hurting an opponent.”
After the win over Bonavena he knocked out faded but still capable Eddie Machen in the 10th and last round in Los Angeles, left-hooking the former master boxer through the ropes and on to the ring apron.
And he proved beyond doubt he really was a tremendous heavyweight when he butchered Canada’s rock-jawed George Chuvalo in four rounds at Madison Square Garden in July, 1967.
George was not dropped, but turned his head away in the fourth as Frazier’s left hooks smashed open his left cheekbone. It was the first time Chuvalo had been halted. Frazier simply tore him apart.
Joe had been jarred in the third but piled right back in again. It was all over after 16 seconds of round four, and Chuvalo later had to have bone chips removed from his cheek and was reportedly in hospital for a week.
This was the time of Muhammad Ali’s enforced absence from the ring. The WBA invited Frazier to take part in their elimination series, but shrewd Yank Durham preferred to go his own way, with the backing of Madison Square Garden.
Frazier clashed with giant Buster Mathis at the opening of the new Madison Square Garden on March 4, 1968. It had New York recognition as a world heavyweight title fight.
Joe retained his version of the title four times. Then on February 16, 1970, he overpowered Jimmy Ellis, the WBA champion, to gain universal acceptance as champion.
Ellis was shattered by left hooks and unable to answer the bell for the fifth round of the Madison Square Garden fight.
Frazier was an unstoppable powerhouse in this fight. Ellis, a smart fighter and solid right-hand hitter, was overpowered almost from the first bell.
Smokin’ Joe bored right in on him, just waling through Ellis’s attempt to counter.
Ellis appeared to win the first round but then it was Frazier all the way bulling and shoving Ellis to get him into position for vicious hooks to body and head.
By the start of the fourth Ellis had been punched just about to a standstill and Frazier practically tore out to finish him. Left hooks put Ellis down for the mandatory eight count, and Frazier pounded away at his flagging opponent before another smashing left hook sent Ellis to the floor, flat on his back.
The bell rang at the count of five but referee Tony Perez, in accordance with New York State rules, kept counting, and at nine Jimmy somehow made it to his feet.
But he just slumped down his corner stool, eyes staring vacantly. His manager, Angelo Dundee, signalled that Jimmy was through for the night as the bell went for round five.
It was a smashing victory by Frazier. Although he had been established a firm favourite, not many could have foreseen such a one-sided triumph over Ali’s former spar-mate.
And in November 1970, Smokin’ Joe underlined his right to be called world champion when he annihilated Bob Foster, the light-heavyweight title-holder, in the second round in Detroit.
Bob was feared as a great puncher in his own division, but Frazier bulldozed his way in and nearly took Foster’s head off with his left hooks.
As in the massacre of Jimmy Ellis, Frazier completed his job of work like a great champion.
But always there was the presence of Muhammad Ali, now proclaimed as the people’s Champion.
Frazier probably knew in his heart of hearts that he would have to whip Ali to prove his right to the championship.
Finally, with Ali licensed to box again and having eliminated Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena, the rivals got it on at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971.
Frazier went into the ring with 26 straight wins. Ali with 31. When the dust had cleared many were prepared to call it the true Fight of the Century, until it was surpassed by the Thrilla in Manila last October.
The fight fraternity was shocked when Frazier was knocked down six times and crushed in two rounds by George Foreman in Kingston, Jamaica, to lose the title.
But Frazier had been wobbled by modest Ron Stander in a title defence and just had to go when Foreman tagged him early in the proceedings.
Pride and heart kept Joe going but he kept walking into bombs. It was a devastating defeat.
He came back seven months later to outpoint Joe Bugner at Earls Court, his only British appearance.
With Ali anxious to wipe the slate clean, the ex-champs clashed in a 12-rounds rematch at Madison Square Garden, winner to meet Foreman.
Frazier lost the unanimous decision in a classic fight, but insisted he had won on aggression and harder hitting. Not many agreed with him. But Ali won no friends with his persistent holding in this fight.
Critics wondered whether Frazer might be wise to retire but Joe hung in there and massacred his old rival Jerry Quarry in five rounds to put himself right back as genuine contender.
He was a definite underdog when he fought Ali in Manila, but Joe fought with magnificent gallantry and for the first 10 rounds looked in with a great chance of victory.
Ali said after the 10th he felt like quitting, but Ali, too, has courage. He fought on and drilled in blows to have Frazier’s eyes almost swollen shut. Joe was on the verge of collapse in the 14th but still tried to fight back as Ali picked his spots.
At the end of the round, Eddie Futch over-ruled Frazier’s protests and called the referee to announce he wished to retire his man. Joe had given all he had and his cause was a just one.
Many urged Joe to quit the ring, after, but he still maintained he could beat Ali…and he also said he had a score to settle with George Foreman.
But at 32, and in his 36th fight, Joe was fighting the clock as well as Foreman’s fists.
We will remember him with dignity as well as his ring prowess.
He never really liked Ali but the fighters had respect for each other and made a lot of money in the ring together.
The Frazier of 1968-1971 was an awesome heavyweight.
In the first of his two fights with Jerry Quarry, they stood head-to-head and banged away at each other. Quarry hit Joe with a brutal left hook in the fourth but Frazier withstood the blow and, allegedly, looked Quarry in the eyes as they came together again, and spat through his gumshield: “You through? Because it’s my turn now!”
Quarry was remorselessly outgunned and the fight was stopped at his corner’s request after seven rounds.
Jerry was deeply cut under the left eye and facing inevitable defeat.
Now it’s all over. Frazier has invested wisely and enjoys financial security.
Frazier now has time to enjoy life. He and Florence have five children, and Joe will now be able to spend more time with his family.
He will maintain his interest in boxing in a managerial capacity, guiding white heavyweight Duane Bobick.
He left the ring with a record of 32 wins in 36 fights, with 27 victories achieved without the need for scorecards.
Joe entered the ring the sentimental favourite but the betting underdog for his last stand against Foreman. His defeat was predictable, but he finished on his feet and defiant until the very last.
It was the warrior’s way to go.