This writer was saddened to hear – as many boxing fans were- that former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier is in a fight for his life. The 67-year old Frazier is battling the final stages of liver cancer according to his manager, Leslie Wolff. Boxing promoter Don King, who matched Frazier against Muhammad Ali in “The Thrilla in Manila” honored him before a cruiserweight title match in Hollywood, Fla., on Saturday night. “Joe Frazier is a giant among men,” King said. “He was a great gladiator and a great fighter. When Smokin’ Joe came to the ring you knew you had someone who was coming to fight. He edified himself and qualified himself as a champion among champions in his fights with Ali. My prayers are with him.’”
King is right. Joe Frazier is a giant among men. When Muhammad Ali had his titles stripped for refusing military service from 1967-1970 and found himself wandering the college lecture circuit, it was Joe Frazier who approached him to try to help him out financially. Joe also tried to convince the powers that be to allow Ali to box even petitioning President Nixon at the time. The Supreme Court eventually overturned Ali’s sentence for refusing military service and Ali came back to boxing.
Ali fought Jerry Quarry and stopped him in the third round and Smokin’Joe Frazier had just beaten Bob Foster, one of the greatest light heavyweights ever in two rounds. Frazier pummeled and dazed Foster so hard in that fight that a dazed Foster went back to his dressing room after the fight and tried to put his boxing shoes back on instead of taking them off – he was heard saying “I got to go fight Frazier!”In Ali’s second fight after his three year layoff he stopped the tough Argentine Oscar Bonavena in the 15th round. That set the stage for the first fight with Frazier in what would turn out to be the greatest boxing trilogy of all time. They would meet at Madison Square Garden on March 7, 1971, in what was billed as “The Fight of the Century.”
Ali had the gift of gab and was great at promoting his own fights. However, never had Ali’s verbal jabs gotten as nasty and controversial until his fights with Frazier. Leading up to the first fight, Ali called Frazier an “Uncle Tom” and a tool of good-old-boy sheriffs and Ku Klux Klansmen. Ali knew full well that Frazier, the thirteenth child born to a one-armed North Carolina sharecropper, had traveled a far harder road than he had during an era of social and racial injustices. But Ali got away with it because he was seen as handsome, charming and funny – the things that Frazier wasn’t. In any event, Joe felt as if he had been stabbed in the back and that sparked an animosity between the two great champions that has lasted to this day.
What Ali didn’t realize was that all that verbal jabbing just served to motivate Joe for their first fight. In the early rounds of the fight, when Ali’s punches were starting to show on Frazier’s face, Joe kept coming on relentlessly, hammering away at Ali’s body. In the eleventh round he delivered a devastating left hook that would have dropped a horse, but Ali known for one of the greatest chins in boxing didn’t fall. Ali wobbled and survived to fight into the fifteenth round when Frazier caught him with another, even more brutal left hook. This time Ali fell like a house of cards, on his back with his feet high in the air. Ali amazingly got up to finish the fight determined not to get knocked out by Frazier. Joe Frazier scored a 15-round decision to retain his championship.
Their third and final fight was billed as “The Thrilla in Manila,” and it defined both men. It was a grueling match set in the tropical heat of the Philippines on October 1, 1975. Ali continued to taunt Frazier at every opportunity, most famously by punching a rubber gorilla meant to represent Frazier during a press conference while saying: “It’s gonna be a thrilla, and a chilla, and a killa, when I get the Gorilla in Manila.”
As expected, Ali put pressure on Frazier in the beginning, stinging him with jabs and combinations to the head, winning the first rounds. Frazier does not lose hope – he knows his time will come. He smiles as he takes Ali’s punches and counters with punches to Ali’s arms and body, once in a while that sweet left hook landing on Ali’s head. With about a third of the fight over, the tide slowly turned. Ali tires and Joe’s punches hit target more often. Frazier tires too and by round ten both fighters show clear signs of fatigue, fighting at low pace.
Ali outlasted Frazier, who finished on his stool in the 14th round when his trainer Eddie Futch wouldn’t let Joe come out because of the severe swelling over his eye. Both Ali and Frazier fought to their absolute limit and maybe beyond. Joe’s eyes were still shut hours after the fight. Ali’s body showed conspicuous signs of the battle, with bruises and swellings everywhere. Ali is supposed to have told Angelo Dundee yet during the fight that this was “the closest to dying” he had ever been.
Joe Frazier epitomized straight up blue-collar hard work. While other boxers like Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard were the darlings of media, Joe Frazier wasn’t about the flash and dash or the spotlight. Even when he was the Heavyweight Champion of the world he was still the same blue collar tough guy from Philly. His style, morals and value systems never changed. Even when things turned south financially and physically for Joe, he still handled his situations with class and dignity.
Joe’s struggles represent the struggles of all working people and his ability to endure serves to inspire us all to always just do the best you can. Joe Frazier was and always be a fighter and a winner in and out of the ring. We wish Joe well in the toughest fight of his life.
“Life doesn’t run away from nobody. Life runs at people.” – Joe Frazier