Sad news from the world of boxing as it was announced Monday night that legendary world champion Joe Frazier has died at a short battle with liver cancer at the age of 67. Over the weekend the news broke that ‘Smokin’ Joe’ had been moved into hospice care due to the disease and the situation worsened with dramatic speed.
Frazier was an integral part of what is commonly seen as the golden era of heavyweight boxing, where the world title was the premier trophy in the entire sporting world. He was crowned world champion after defeating Jimmy Ellis to claim the WBC and WBA titles to go alongside his NYSAC belt in 1970. However few recognized as the true titlist due to the ongoing situation with former champion Muhammad Ali, who had been stripped off his undisputed championship due to his refusal to fight in Vietnam. Typical of the man Frazier lobbied for Ali to be allowed to fight and many attempts were made to hold the eagerly anticipated bout overseas. Finally in 1971 the ‘Fight of the Century’ was made in Madison Square Garden. It was a historic meeting of two undefeated world champions and to the surprise of many Frazier defeated Ali by unanimous decision, dropping him with a hard right hand in the final round.
What should have been a valedictory moment proved to be nothing of the kind. Ali was able to spin the entirely correct decision as having been a biased call against him. Away from Ali, Frazier’s reign would prove short as in 1973 he was demolished by the fearsome slugger George Foreman in just two rounds. Thrice the champion hit the canvass in the first round in one of the most brutally one-sided fights you’ll ever see. The impression that Frazier was seriously past his prime was strengthened a year late when he lost to Ali in a poor second match that was marred by Ali repeatedly holding Frazier and so stopping him working from the inside.
The impression however would be proved dramatically wrong when he had his third and final match with Ali. Since their second fight, Ali had shocked the world by reclaiming his world title. In the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, Ali had utilized his ‘rope a dope’ tactics to wear down the imposing Foreman and then overwhelm a tired champion in the second half of the fight. Held in the Philippines in 1975, the ‘Thrilla in Manilla’ would go down as perhaps the most brutal fight in heavyweight boxing history.
But before the two fighters stepped foot in the ring, Ali stepped up his already incessant disparaging of his former friend. In the run up to the first fight Ali had called Frazier the ‘white man’s champion’ due to the decision of the white dominated boxing authorities to strip him of the world title for political reasons. It was also arguably a reference to the white owned businessmen that backed Frazier’s in-ring exploits. The effect of such racially charged barbs as ‘uncle tom’ was to turn the fight into a genuine cultural fault line in an America divided by issues of war, politics and race. If you were young, liberal or black then you likely backed the self-styled people’s champion Ali. If you were old, conservative or white then you likely backed Frazier. By the time of the third fight Ali was moving beyond the political dimension by constantly belittling Frazier’s intelligence. In uncomfortable scenes Ali would refer to his rival as a gorilla. But while Ali was focusing on amusing himself with insults and psychology, Frazier was the one better preparing himself for what would follow.
For fourteen rounds the two fighters tore into each other, assisted by a referee who refused to let Ali get away with his hold and stall tactics of the second fight. Withstanding an early onslaught from the champion, Frazier worked the body hard and shocked Ali by throwing effective punches with his usually ineffective left hand. Ali would come back strong in the final third, with his pinpoint punches opening up a deep cut and truly sickening hematoma above Frazier’s right eye. At the end of the fourteenth round Frazier was effectively fighting blind due to the cut and a longstanding problem with his left eye. Despite many people having Frazier up on the scorecards by virtue of his dominance in the middle of the fight, his cornerman Eddie Futch took the decision to not let him out for the fifteenth and final round. A delighted Ali tried to rise off his stool to celebrate but he collapsed due to exhaustion. To this day many are convinced that if Frazier had answered the call for the final round it would have been Ali retiring on his stool.
Having decisively lost the trilogy that defined him Frazier’s career would soon end. In his next fight he would face his old rival George Foreman, and over five rounds proved surprisingly competitive until Foreman dropped him for the second time in the fifth. After that Frazier retired with only a solitary comeback fight in 1981 breaking that retirement. His after-boxing life would not be as lucrative as that enjoyed by Ali or Foreman, and often he seemed consumed with bitterness for the man that through his barbs had done so much to poison his public image during his heyday. However in recent years revisionist historians have gone back to the familiar story of Ali-Frazier and exposed much of the former’s duplicity and the very real human cost to Frazier and his family of what Ali would later claim were merely attempts to build the fight. Ali has repeatedly apologized for how he acted towards Frazier in the seventies and released a warm statement about his legendary rival, but until the very end Frazier could never truly forgive or forget.
Regardless of the controversies surrounding what is the greatest sporting rivalry between two people of all time, Joe Frazier’s place in history is unchallenged. More than a great boxer he was a true champion and warrior. Whereas modern champions hide away from the toughest challenges, Frazier campaigned to get Ali reinstated and had no problem with twice facing the truly formidable Foreman. The sport of boxing is poorer for having lost him.