Just past 11 p.m. at Madison Square Garden on a cold March evening in 1971, the undefeated former champion was growing visibly weary. “Don’t you know I’m God?” Ali asked of Frazier, matching every word with a punch as he attempted to take his throne back. Frazier, not impressed, answered, “Well, God’s gonna get his ass whupped tonight.”
In round 15, Ali was whacked with a patented Joe Frazier left hook that decked him and sealed the decision for Smokin’ Joe. And reduced the self-proclaimed deity to a mere mortal.
“The Fight of the Century” doesn’t even exist beyond hyperbole anymore; too many fight promotions have attempted to usurp the term for it to be taken seriously. It all started in 1892 thanks to James J. Corbett, who snatched the heavyweight title from the grasp of John L. Sullivan, “The Boston Strong Boy” and veritable relic of the bareknuckle boxing era, in what truly was the fight of the 19th century. But then in the 20th century there was Jack Johnson against Jim Jeffries; then Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier for boxing’s first $1 million gate, to be eclipsed by Dempsey’s second defeat to Gene Tunney. Joe Louis‘ win over Max Schmeling was next up, and then even Rocky Marciano benefited from such auxesis.
But this Fight of the Century, Joe Frazier vs Muhammad Ali I, was the one watched by an estimated 300 million people, or just under 10 percent of the world’s population. Frank Sinatra, unable to purchase ringside seats despite his extremely high profile, chose to moonlight as a shutterbug to be close to the action. It was an unforgettable night that Frazier was one-half of, and in the end he claimed it for himself. It will forever be one of boxing’s greatest victories.
Retirement for Joe came in 1981, and one year later “Rocky 3” was released along with a famous statue, and it stung.
“The Rocky statue has been there for years, and I have nothing against it, but Joe was a real fighter,” Frazier’s cousin Oliver told The Fight City. “Rocky was a fictional character, and he was on the museum steps for years right in the tourist district. I walk by there every day and see people taking photos there, and that’s fine for tourism. But all the while there was a real, live fighter here, and Joe had to pass that statue also.”
Frazier was Philadelphia’s actual hero; he tried to improve the city whose businessmen united to form an investment group called Cloverlay to bankroll his career. He opened Joe Frazier’s Gym, “a temple, a university of saving kids, saving adults,” said Bernard Hopkins. Frazier may have been born in South Carolina, but his heart was in Philadelphia, where it remains after his passing at the age of 67 in 2011, 40 years after his first tussle with Ali.
It was both wonderful and tragic that Frazier became forever linked to “The Greatest,” both riding the wave of Ali’s celebrity and fighting in his shadow at the same time. An obituary read, “He deserves in death the stability and reputation he so often was deprived of in life.”
Last weekend Frazier’s likeness was immortalized at the unveiling of an 11-foot, 1,800-pound statue at the Xfinity Live sports complex in his adopted town. It took years of wrangling between family members and the city, and was a cause championed by politicians, business types and members of the boxing community. Joe Hand, one of the original founders of Cloverlay, vowed in 2012 to see the project through, but it took time, and further delays were caused when the first sculptor, Larry Nowlan, died unexpectedly months into the project. That’s when Stephen Layne took over.
The finished product exudes strength, a figure towering above all mortals with a muscled left arm hanging in a left hook’s follow through, gazing slightly downward through a furrowed brow. But to boxing fans, the pose is more than familiar; it is iconic. Indeed the only thing missing from the scene is Ali falling to the canvas in a heap in the most memorable round of “The Fight of the Century.”
A testament to Frazier’s invaluable legacy in boxing and life, the statue has been added to the City of Philadelphia’s public art collection. What would “Smokin’ Joe” himself have said about it? “Don’t worry about it. Put it up good,” said cousin Oliver. He was just that kind of man.
Gods, common sculptural subjects in Ancient Greece where pygmachia flourished, could apparently be stripped of power. Joe Frazier did just that. And it makes perfect sense that Frazier, slayer of gods, would finally be honored in bronze, twice as big as most men. — Patrick Connor