It seems we had just absorbed the saddening news that the legendary Smokin’ Joe Frazier had been recently diagnosed with terminal cancer before we were greeted today by the announcement he had died at a hospice in Philadelphia, the city where Frazier became a legend and where he lived most of his life. His death leaves a void in the world of boxing that cannot be filled. A singular champion in heavyweight history, he dominated the division during Muhammad Ali’s exile and then defined the career of Ali himself by means of an incredibly intense rivalry, the most memorable in the history of the sport.
Frazier never really moved on from boxing. In his latter years he actually lived in an apartment right above his own boxing gym in Philadelphia where he helped train youngsters and prospects. The fight game was his life. Having left home at only 15, the sport gave him the means to make the journey from being a sharecropper’s son in South Carolina, to winning Olympic gold, becoming a champion, and earning millions of dollars. Not long after his own boxing career had ended, he managed and trained his son Marvis, who, like his father, had a distinguished amateur career and later fought for the heavyweight crown. Even Joe’s daughter, Jackie, eventually got into the ring. Boxing was Joe’s identity; fighting was what he did. And what a fighter he was.
No matter where one ranks Frazier among the greatest heavyweight champions in history, three facts cannot be denied and could be said to constitute his boxing legacy.
First, he possessed one of the most devastating left hooks in boxing history, a fearsome weapon almost impossible to avoid, thrown with such ferocity and effectiveness it accounted for most of his boxing success. Everything he did in the ring — bobbing and weaving and attacking, constantly driving forward on those incredibly strong legs like a 205 pound version of Henry Armstrong — was done in order to find the right position and range so the left hook would get home. When it landed to the body, it sapped an opponents’ will; when it connected to the chin, it sent men reeling.
Second, Frazier defined the career of Muhammad Ali. Without Frazier’s greatness, Ali would never have so clearly demonstrated his own. In their three battles, Frazier pushed Ali to be his best, clearly getting the better of it in their first war in 1971, and giving him the toughest, most punishing fight of his life in their final meeting in 1975.
Third, Frazier’s victory over Ali in 1971 stands out as one of the truly great ring performances of all time, a fact not cited nearly often enough. It took everything Frazier had — physically, mentally, spiritually — to come out on top in that first battle on March 8, 1971 and Frazier was never quite the same ever after. Ali’s talent and his advantages in height and reach presented huge challenges, as did Ali’s taunting which caused the champion no small measure of aggravation. Frazier was the one boxer Ali could not secure a psychological edge over, who in fact intimidated him with his toughness and iron will. As a result he goaded Frazier cruelly and incessantly.
For Joe, the insults were personal; he had helped Ali during his exile and assumed a certain degree of mutual respect. The invective and abuse echoed down through the decades for Frazier, especially after Ali was embraced by America as a beloved hero; Frazier saw him differently.
But Joe could always take comfort from the fact that when they were both still in their primes, and when the whole world was watching, Frazier was victorious. There will likely never be a boxing match as significant as that first confrontation between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. A fight between two undefeated heavyweight champions, it was, in terms of anticipation and global attention, monumental. In a time before pay-per-view and the internet, it was the most watched sports event in history. It not only transcended boxing, it transcended sports.
And that night Joe Frazier simply would not be denied. Constantly bobbing and weaving, relentlessly bulling his way inside, landing vicious hooks to Ali’s body and head while absorbing tremendous punishment himself, Frazier dealt Ali his first professional defeat, punctuating his achievement with a knockdown in the final round. It was a performance of great skill, courage, heart and nobility. And it secured Frazier’s claim to being the true world champion and one of the finest boxers in heavyweight history. Frazier had other glorious wins, most notably against Jimmy Ellis, Oscar Bonavena, Jerry Quarry and Bob Foster. But that first battle with Ali was his greatest victory, for which he will be best remembered.
As far as legacies go, in boxing, they don’t get much better. — Michael Carbert