With today’s untimely death of Smokin’ Joe Frazier, sport itself has lost a true warrior, and one of the most fearsome competitors of all-time. The 67-year-old has passed away after succumbing to liver cancer overnight.
As a fighter, Frazier had it all. An Olympic Champion in 1964, he could box as well as brawl, a quality which would define much of his later career. Frazier’s professional record would be impressive with wins over Muhammad Ali, Jerry Quarry, Oscar Bonavera and Buster Mathis. His only defeats came twice each to George Foreman and Ali.
Frazier’s battles with ‘The Greatest’ define his career, even though that is something he himself would not be pleased with. He often spoke of their ongoing animosity, long after their in-ring battles concluded. Famously, in 1996, after Ali lit the Olympic Torch in Atlanta, Frazier remarked that he wanted to push his rival into the flame.
They first clashed in New York in 1971. With both men undefeated World Champions at this point, it was the ‘Fight of the Century’ and Frazier would inflict upon Ali the most notable loss of his life, knocking him down in the 15thround en route to a points win. Ali would win their second contest three years later before the final contest in their trilogy.
The ‘Thrilla in Manila’ is simply 14 rounds of drama. While Joe Frazier would end up the loser on that balmy morning, above all others this contest would highlight his strongest quality, that enduring spirit. Even when his eyes were swollen shut, and when his opponent’s jabs would have crushed the will of a weaker man, Frazier kept coming forward and kept fighting on in a brutal war. Make no mistake; but for the intervention of his trainer Eddie Futch, Frazier would have fought that 15th round, if given the chance, despite the likely disastrous consequences. It was the event that would shape his very existence for the next 36 years, and in many ways he came across as bitter as a result, but one must remember the disgusting insults levied at him by his opponent in the previous five years.
Ironically, Muhammad Ali has led the tributes to Frazier today, saying “the world has lost a great champion” and that he will “always remember Joe with respect and admiration.” All boxing fans will do the same – he may have been the third best heavyweight of his era, but he would have been the very best of most decades, and is likely in the top-ten heavyweights of all-time.
Today’s tributes do not match the outpouring of grief which will likely come when his great rival passes away. However, that love and respect for Ali might just be due to Frazier. The Greatest only has that title because he was tested and because he had to overcome so many obstacles, none tougher than the man from Philadelphia.
If Muhammad Ali is “King of the World”, then Joe Frazier did more than anyone else to put that crown upon his head. It’s not the legacy he wanted, or even one he deserved, but it’s enough to cement his place in boxing folklore forever.