Those who truly appreciate the sport of boxing often find themselves cheering for anybody in the ring who displays a combination of skill, heart, and determination, no matter who it is. Sure, everybody has their favorite fighters, but it’s very rare that boxing fans find themselves “hating” anybody. Many boxing fans find themselves being supporters of both combatants during a fight.
I realized this when ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier was about to take on Muhammad Ali back on March 8, 1971. I loved Ali, but couldn’t for the life of me think of anything negative to say about Frazier. Who could? This was a guy who by today’s standards would be one of the smallest heavyweights around. At 5-foot-10 and 210 lbs, he didn’t strike fear in his opponents until the bell rang to start the fight.
Before the ‘Fight of the Century’ boxing fans were divided when it came to picking a winner. Many fans thought Ali’s three years in exile had robbed him of his prime while others figured he had just too much skill and speed for the plodding Frazier. But one of the biggest parts of the equation was heart. Frazier and Ali both possessed a fascinating determination and will to survive.
Back in those days most big fights were broadcast on closed-circuit television cards at local arenas and theaters. I remember the fans being almost as entertaining as the fight when debates raged on and on throughout the crowd of about 3,000 during the intermission. All over the rink you could see grown men acting out what they thought was going to take place in the ring. The Ali shuffle could be made out in the dark shadows along with leaping left hooks, which were being demonstrated by Frazier fans.
Needless to say, the bout was one of the best in heavyweight history and both men lived up to the pre-fight hype. Unfortunately, one of them had to lose and this time it was Ali’s turn, courtesy of a sledgehammer of a left hook that Frazier landed in the 15th and final round. Ali, showing the heart of a lion, was up just as quick as he hit the deck, but this was the icing on the cake in Frazier’s unanimous decision.
I was disappointed Ali had lost, but realized I’d witnessed something special that night. I knew Frazier was an excellent boxer having won the Olympic Gold Medal in Tokyo in 1964, but didn’t realize he was that good. Of course, Ali and Frazier went at it again twice more in the following years with Ali taking both fights. The third act of the trilogy, 1975’s ‘Thrilla in Manila,’ was arguably the most fascinating match in boxing history as both men stood toe-to-toe for 14 punishing rounds before Frazier’s trainer Eddie Futch stopped the fight.
But at the time, Ali’s words hurt Frazier more than any of his pinpoint punches ever could. Unknowingly, Ali’s tongue cut right through ‘Smokin’ Joe’s heart and scarred him psychologically for many years afterwards. Frazier considered himself to be Ali’s friend and lent him money and support while Ali was trying to regain his boxing license after refusing induction into the U.S. Army. But once the contracts had been signed before their first fight Frazier couldn’t understand why Ali was belittling and ridiculing him while trying to promote the battle. He felt betrayed and didn’t realize it was just Ali’s nature.
While many boxers didn’t care what Ali called them, Frazier was more sensitive. It wasn’t until a few decades later until he finally came to terms with it and forgave Ali. However, Ali’s love and respect for his nemesis could easily be seen when he referred to him simply as “Joe.” There were numerous occasions when Ali and Frazier were together and like old friends, joked and argued about their times together in the ring. I always remember Ali addressing Frazier as Joe. Many of the old photographs also show the mutual respect they shared.
Frazier enjoyed an excellent career by taking on the best heavyweights of his era, which arguably was the best era ever for the big men. He lost a few fights along the way, but when Frazier hit the deck you could bet the house he’d try to get to his feet. The most memorable instances of this came against George Foreman since Frazier was decked a total of seven times in his two losses to him.
‘Smokin’ Joe compiled a professional record of 32-4-1 with 27 KOs and held the world heavyweight title for three years from February 1970 to January 1973. He defended it four times before losing it to Foreman. He was well known around the world due to his epic battles with Ali and his Olympic triumph. Frazier also fought in Jamaica, England, and Australia.
When Frazier died at the age of 67 on Nov. 7 boxing lost one of its greatest gladiators. He was tough, relentless, and determined. But most of all he had a heart of gold. When Frazier lost his battle against liver cancer, not a bad word was spoken or written about him. The true measure of the man was that nobody said a bad word about him while he was living either.