In a sport fraught with wrestlers and dancers, Joe Frazier was simply a fighter, one who believed in punishing and taking punishment, with the winner taking all. Frazier delivered a never ending bob-and-weave attach of lefts and rights, punctuated by a stiff left hook. That relentlessness shaped Frazier’s career, carrying him out of a Philly gym to an Olympic gold medal and the heavyweight championship of the world.
Joe was born on Jan. 12 1944, the eleventh child of sharecroppers Rubin and Dolly Frazier. Per Frazier’s 1996 autobiography, “Smokin’ Joe”, Rubin was a sharecropper who ran a still and grew “this musk, which I figure now must’ve been tobacco or marijuana.”
In December 1961, at 17, Frazier took up boxing, trying to shed 30 pounds from a stout 220 on a 5’11” frame. Trainer Yank Durham discovered his raw talent and honed Frazier, shortening his punches, improving his speed and developing Frazier’s famous left hook.
Frazier won the Middle Atlantic Golden Gloves heavyweight championship for three straight years. He lost to Buster Mathis in the finals of the 1964 U.S. Olympic Trials, but replaced an injured Mathis at the Olympics in Tokyo. There, he won the gold medal, despite fighting the final bought with a broken left thumb.
Frazier’s pro debut came on Aug. 16, 1965, and within 12 months he was 11-0, with every victory coming by knockout. When Ali was stripped of his title in 1967, Frazier fought his way up the WBA challenger ladder. At Madison Square Gardens, Feb. 16, 1970, he took down Jimmy Ellis in five rounds to become the undisputed heavyweight champion.
Final validation came for Frazier with Ali’s return. After months of posturing and name calling it all came down to a Frazier left hook in the 15th round that send Ali careening to the canvas. On March 8, 1971, in the “Fight of the Century” an unbeaten Frazier won a unanimous decision as he handed Ali the first defeat of his pro career.
Frazier held on to his title for three years, before a younger and stronger George Forman took it away in Jamaica. After that, it seemed while Frazier still had a champion’s heart, his luck and body gave out. In a somewhat controversial decision, Ali took the second Garden bout Jan. 28, 1974, setting the stage for the most dramatic fight of the Ali-Frazier trilogy the 1975 “Thrilla in Manilla.” For fourteen rounds the heavyweights beat each other unmercifully until trainer Eddie Futch wouldn’t let a blind Frazier come out for the 15th.
“Once more,” Mark Kram wrote in Sports Illustrated, in the fight “had Frazier taken the child of the gods to hell and back.”
After Forman knocked out Frazier in the fifth round in 1976, he called it quits. Elected into the international Boxing hall of Fame, Frazier has spent most of his post boxing career running his foundation and training other young fighters, another smokin’ generation.