When former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier died in 2011 it came as a shock to the boxing world. After all, he was a mere sixty-seven years of age and the world had only just learned of a diagnosis for liver cancer. Suddenly he was gone and we lamented not only his absence but the fact we had not fully appreciated him when he was with us. Nowhere was this more keenly felt than in Frazier’s adopted home of Philadelphia where at the city’s art museum there stood a statue of a fictional boxer named Rocky Balboa, while no public tribute existed for an all-time great heavyweight champion who had called Philly home for decades. The legendary Smokin’ Joe deserved better.
Now, thankfully, if belatedly, the city can boast a statue of Frazier, as it was finally unveiled in 2015. But for some of us, it seems inadequate, and not only because it should have been put up years, if not decades, before. Somehow a physical likeness of the man doesn’t quite do him justice; Joe Frazier was a legit boxing legend and he deserves something on a grander scale. For this writer, a more fitting statue for the warrior named Joseph William Frazier would have been a colossal left hook. I’m thinking something about three stories high, all glossy and sinewy, a cocked left arm chiseled from stone, immovable and monumental.
Yes, I know, something similar was done in Detroit with that city’s memorial to the great Joe Louis. But that statue is of Louis’s right arm and fist, appropriate since while The Brown Bomber packed dynamite in both hands, his most potent weapon was the right cross. Frazier could have shown up with his right arm in a sling and still won fights, his left arm was that essential to his ring success. Detroit can have the right; Philadelphia should have a huge, muscled left arm, cocked at a ninety degree angle, and carved from South Carolina granite instead of cast in bronze. And next to it, an endless, big screen video loop showing Smokin’ Joe bashing a succession of opponents with probably the best hook in heavyweight history.
Tourists would of course ooh and ahh over the lefts that floored Muhammad Ali and Jerry Quarry, but the one to make people wince and shake their heads is the hook ending the first and last challenge for the heavyweight crown by great light heavyweight champ, Bob Foster. Frazier threw a host of lethal left hands in his career, but none more devastating than the one concluding, with brutal emphasis, his short encounter with Blitzin’ Bob.
Going into his challenge of Smokin’ Joe, Foster enjoyed a 20 bout winning streak, all but one of those victories coming by way of knockout, as well as a deserved reputation for being an incredibly powerful puncher, at least for the 175 pound weight class. Foster had already ventured into the heavyweight division and while he came away with a few notable victories, he had also been stopped by Doug Jones and Ernie Terrell. This did not bode well for his chances against Frazier. Nor did the fact the champion outweighed him by 21 pounds.
Smokin’ Joe was undefeated and coming off the most important win of his career thus far, a fifth round stoppage of Jimmy Ellis. That victory secured widespread recognition for Frazier as the reigning heavyweight king, despite the fact many viewed Muhammad Ali, who had been stripped of his title for refusing to be drafted into the army, as the rightful champion.
As it happened, Cobo Hall in Joe Louis’ home city of Detroit hosted the Frazier vs Foster clash, ABC’s Wide World of Sports broadcasting it to millions, with Howard Cosell providing the ringside commentary. And what the bout lacked in terms of drama it made up for in sudden violence. All suspense was gone by the end of the first round as it was evident the challenger lacked the strength to keep Frazier at bay. As Foster would later say, “You need a .45 to keep Frazier off you.”
In the second, Joe went for the kill. Barely a minute in, the champion connected perfectly with a compact version of his famous hook, the blow almost lifting Foster off his feet before dumping him on the canvas like one of the sides of beef Frazier used to haul around when he worked in a Philadelphia slaughterhouse. Bob barely beat the count and then struggled in vain to clinch or fight back as Joe swarmed him.
Then came the monster hook, thrown this time with full velocity, wide, all of Frazier’s weight on it, a freight train crashing through Cobo Hall and colliding full force with Foster’s jaw. The challenger’s head recoiled like a released spring and his whole body froze before it toppled to the floor. The count by the referee was a completely futile gesture; Foster remained on the canvas for a full minute. Considering the power of that final shot, it’s astonishing he didn’t exit the ring on a gurney.
In fewer than four minutes Frazier had demolished the reigning light-heavyweight champion of the world and the vicious knockout only further whetted the public’s appetite for the clash to come a few months later in New York’s Madison Square Garden. There, two undefeated champions, Smokin’ Joe and The Louisville Lip, battled for the undisputed heavyweight crown and Frazier’s unique legacy would be forever secured when he became the only boxer to defeat a prime Muhammad Ali after one of the greatest fights in the sport’s history.
The left hook that floored Ali in the final round of that monumental clash is without question the most famous punch Frazier ever threw and is the inspiration for the eleven foot statue that now stands in The City of Brotherly Love, but the hook that separated Foster from his senses on this date back in 1970 is, for sheer ferocity, just as worthy of commemoration. Watch and remember the courage and power of Smokin’ Joe.
— Michael Carbert