The Ancestors Summon “Smokin'” Joe Frazier, Boxer and Entertainer
This is the Joe Frazier I remember. I admit that I didn’t follow him as closely as Muhammad Ali‘s other nemesis of the Seventies, George Foreman, who like him was a self-made, working-class kind of guy. However, he definitely became more accessible, particularly on TV commercials and other sports and entertainment events, even appearing on The Simpsons, making me and countless others smile in recognition and in remembrance. And now he is gone.
It was shocking to learn a few days ago that Frazier, 67, was in a hospice, braving the last few days of his life. Over the years, Frazier suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure, but he died of liver cancer that had just been diagnosed late this summer. He had continued to attend sports memorabilia and signing shows until September. From The New York Times:
Known as Smokin’ Joe, Frazier stalked his opponents around the ring with a crouching, relentless attack — his head low and bobbing, his broad, powerful shoulders hunched — as he bore down on them with an onslaught of withering jabs and crushing body blows, setting them up for his devastating left hook.
It was an overpowering modus operandi that led to versions of the heavyweight crown from 1968 to 1973. Frazier won 32 fights in all, 27 by knockouts, losing four times — twice to Ali in furious bouts and twice to George Foreman. He also recorded one draw.
A slugger who weathered repeated blows to the head while he delivered punishment, Frazier proved a formidable figure. But his career was defined by his rivalry with Ali, who ridiculed him as a black man in the guise of a Great White Hope. Frazier detested him.
Ali vs. Frazier was a study in contrasts. Ali: tall and handsome, a wit given to spouting poetry, a magnetic figure who drew adulation and denigration alike, the one for his prowess and outsize personality, the other for his antiwar views and Black Power embrace of Islam. Frazier: a bull-like man of few words with a blue-collar image and a glowering visage who in so many ways could be on an equal footing with his rival only in the ring.
Frazier won the undisputed heavyweight title with a 15-round decision over Ali at Madison Square Garden in March 1971, in an extravaganza known as the Fight of the Century. Ali scored a 12-round decision over Frazier at the Garden in a nontitle bout in January 1974. Then came the Thrilla in Manila championship bout, in October 1975, regarded as one of the greatest fights in boxing history. It ended when a battered Frazier, one eye swollen shut, did not come out to face Ali for the 15th round.
As the article later states, you had to have been there to experience one of the last, fine moments of boxing as an American sport and not just an American business. That was a time when boxers were regarded as heroes by the public and the media. Their fights (as well as personal hatreds for one another) were considered titanic battles of not only brawn, but of politics and of strategy. All this before Don King and others ruined it all, and people’s attentions were drawn to other sports like football and basketball.
At the Thrilla in Manila, though, Muhammad Ali wholly underestimated Joe Frazier. He did not train as strenuously, seeing Frazier as washed-up and needing a last big payday before he retired (Frazier did not retire until 1981). And yet, by those standards, Ali himself was 33, too old to be in the ring. According to some sources, Ali was also carrying on his affair with another woman, Veronica Porsche, in his entourage, when his then-wife Belinda flew to Manila herself to confront her erring husband. Coupled with the hot lights and the sweltering Philippine heat resulting in near-exhaustion, the brutal pummeling that Ali got from Frazier also injured him more than he expected. This hallmark event may have been the source of Ali’s later Parkinson’s disease, as other observers have claimed. As Ali admitted, it was the closest he had ever come to death. And Frazier suffered a cataract in one eye, blinding him (Frazier later said that he was already half-blind in his left eye because of an earlier accident). It was only when his eye closed that his trainer, Eddie Futch, refused to let him go back into the ring, and the referee stopped the fight and proclaimed Ali the winner.
“He’s still beautiful outside,” said one of Ali’s medical team at the time. “But what has it done to him inside?”
The answer is chillingly apparent today as the man whose wit and repartee matched the speed of his fists is imprisoned
in the mask of Parkinson’s syndrome, the mind still active but the body irrevocably slowed after the impact of too many
As much as we may admire Muhammad Ali, he was an egoist who preened about his handsome, light-skinned looks. He had a relatively middle-class upbringing while Frazier was born into stark poverty. Ali had the nerve to call his darker-skinned opponents like the scary (because of his former criminal activity) and sad Sonny Liston, “a big ole ugly bear,” and George Foreman as well as Joe Frazier were drawn into this kind of beauty contest of blacker than (or more political than) or more handsome than. Ali also called Frazier flat-nosed, a gorilla and an Uncle Tom. This, against the man who had personally petitioned President Nixon asking that Ali be returned his boxing license, and had given him money when he was dead broke. In the years since the Thrilla in Manila, Frazier and Ali never truly sat down and reconciled. On the 30th anniversary of the first Frazier-Ali fight in 2001 (in which Ali lost), Muhammad Ali apologized profusely for what he said at the time:
“I said a lot of things in the heat of the moment that I shouldn’t have said. Called him names I shouldn’t have called him. I apologize for that. I’m sorry. It was all meant to promote the fight.”
Even when news spread about Frazier and his terminal illness last week, Ali gave a statement of support.
“My family and I are keeping Joe and his family in our daily prayers,” Ali said in his statement. “Joe has a lot of friends pulling for him, and I’m one of them.”
In a Sports Illustrated article in 2009, Frazier claimed not to harbor any more bitterness against the man. But such feelings die hard for certain people, especially when the apologies were not made face to face.
In March 2011, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the first Ali-Frazier fight, Frazier attended a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden and told reporters that he had not seen Ali in person for more than 10 years.
“I forgave him for all the accusations he made over the years,“ The Daily News quoted Frazier as saying. “I hope he’s doing fine. I’d love to see him.”
But as Frazier once told The Times: “Ali always said I would be nothing without him. But who would he have been without me?”
Respect. That’s all he wanted from Ali. Respect.
Joseph William Frazier was born to sharecropper (and occasional moonshiner) Rubin and wife Dolly Frazier on Jan. 12, 1944, in Laurel Bay, South Carolina. He was the last of 12 children. As a boy, relatives and family friends already marked him as a possible fighter like Joe Louis, and he set up a homemade punching bag on the farm and practiced on it. One day, though, the youth poked a stick at the 300-pound family pig after being warned not to enrage the creature. The pig got out of the pen and chased Frazier, who fell onto some bricks, badly injuring his left arm. As the family was too poor to have the arm properly tended by a doctor, Frazier’s arm had to heal on its own. The result was that Frazier’s arm was unable to straighten completely and it did not possess a full range of motion; it was permanently cocked–into a devastating left hook, some would like to say. Later, he dropped out of school at 13 and went to work.
By the time he was 15, in 1959, Frazier had to leave home after confronting a young white man over his belt beating of a 12-year-old black boy. He took “the dog” or the Greyhound bus up north, ending up with a brother in New York. Then at 16, he moved to Philadelphia, taking a job in a slaughterhouse. It was there that he was discovered by his first trainer Yank Durham at a Police Athletic League gym. Durham inadvertently gave him the name Smokin’, when he told the young man in the dressing room, “Go out there, goddammit, and make smoke come from those gloves.” The rest was history.
Joe Frazier was the model for Rocky Balboa’s training routine: practicing his punches on cold beef carcasses and climbing up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the film, Rocky. He received no credit during his life for those enduring scenes. Amazingly, there is a statue of Rocky Balboa on those same steps, when there should be one cast for Joe Frazier. Respect. That’s all he wanted.
Joe Frazier’s autobiography, Smokin’ Joe: The Autobiography of a Heavyweight Champion of the World, Smokin’ Joe Frazier was released in 1996 and was very well received. There is also a 2008 documentary on the Thrilla in Manila (and in chapters on You Tube) that also presents Ali’s racial abuse of Joe Frazier in the context of the times.
Joe Frazier is survived by eleven children. Two, Marvis and Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, became boxers. Marvis Frazier was a Golden Gloves champion. Frazier-Lyde also boxed Laila Ali, Muhammad’s daughter, but she lost the encounter. Frazier-Lyde is now an attorney.
- RIP Smokin’ Joe Frazier (myq105.radio.com)
- Ali mourns his greatest boxing rival, Joe Frazier (ctv.ca)
- Joe Frazier dies: five great nights in Smokin’ Joe’s career (telegraph.co.uk)
- Sporting world reacts to Joe Frazier’s passing (cbsnews.com)
- Joe Frazier dies of liver cancer at age 67 (seattletimes.nwsource.com)