On Monday night Smokin’ Joe Frazier lost his battle with cancer. A former unified heavyweight champion, a first ballot hall of famer, and one of the most famous names in the history of the sport left this world at the age of just 67, leaving us only with his legacy, but what an incredible legacy it is.
Growing up in Carolina, Joe was inspired by all the great champions of the time. Fighters like Marciano, Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson lit a fire in him to lace up gloves and try to become great himself. Lacking any real equipment he would stuff a bag with things from around the house; his old clothes or bits of hay or carpet, and hang it up from the rafters where he could practice, for hours on end, those crunching body shots and legendary left hook.
Having got as much out of these primitive techniques as he could, Frazier left to live in the famous fighting city of Philadelphia. Here, in a town that demands ferocity, determination and sheer bloody-minded stubbornness from its fighters, Smoking Joe found his nirvana.
Frazier’s obvious potential first came to prominence at the 1964 Olympics. He was not initially supposed to be competing, but, having replaced the injured Buster Mathis, he went on all the way to the final and won gold, taking home the biggest prize in the amateur game.
The start to his professional career was similarly sparkling, taking just 3 years to be awarded his first world title, after beating the man who’s misfortune had already led to his greatest triumph to date; Buster Mathis. One title was not enough though as Frazier added WBC and WBA titles to his glittering trophy case.
And then, in 1971, he went to war with The Greatest.
Frazier and Ali’s relationship had started out as very harmonious. Joe had even helped Ali out financially during his years of exile and helped campaign against his boxing ban. This would all change though, when people started referring to Frazier as champ.
Ali’s ego simply would not allow anyone else to carry the title that had been stripped of him. He still considered himself as the true champion and could not stand the thought that the rest of the world might not agree. This led to things going about as sour as a boxing rivalry ever has.
Ali’s taunts of ‘Uncle Tom’ led to the Frazier’s refusal to acknowledge his opponent’s newfound Islamic identity. The press was filled with venomous insults bile and there were fist fights when the pair appeared together on chat shows.
In a sport where ill-will is often little more than soap opera, Ali and Frazier despised each other.
Their first fight, billed as the ‘Fight of the Century’, was all-out brutality. Ali tried to dance, tried to step in and out with stinging jabs and straights, but Frazier wasn’t having any of it. He would hound his foe for a full 15 rounds, pushing him up against the ropes, pounding relentlessly to body and head, refusing to be hurt by the shots that rattled his own skull. Then, in the final stanza, Frazier would land probably the most famous punch in the history of prize fighting, leaping off the ground to land a huge, thunderous left hook that makes Mike Tyson’s best work look like patty-cake. Ali, himself displaying an almost inhuman level of resistance, would get to his feet but the fight was already lost; Frazier had beaten his most hated enemy by unanimous decision.
They met again 3 years later, once again in Madison Square Garden, this time Ali avenging his previous defeat on points. In the fight game though, 1-all draws are just not acceptable; it demands a true winner be found and a true champion be named. And so, boxing’s greatest ever rivalry would be concluded with boxing’s greatest ever fight.
The Thrilla in Manila is clear proof that to a very select group, just a few great men, physical pain is simply no match for passion, heart and fury. Human beings just should not be able to take the sort of punishment that these two took and still stand there, begging for more. They shouldn’t be able to go through that much energy-sapping heat and humidity, shipping such massive shots, getting battered, bloodied and broken without giving in. But these two did. It was the perfect storm of two incredibly talented fighters, two relentless training machines, and a hatred that could quiet their screaming agonies.
Frazier was eventually pulled out at the end of the 14th round, giving Ali the victory, though The Greatest has since admitted he was mere seconds away from throwing in the towel himself. So although the record books may show this as a loss for Smokin’ Joe, it really doesn’t matter. That momentous night in the Philippines is forever engraved in our memories, not for the result, but for all its beautiful violence and for both men’s unwillingness to be beaten.
Joe’s legacy though, is far from solely encapsulated in that great trilogy. His legacy is in the unadulterated bravery he displayed throughout his career, the unswerving determination and the complete disregard for however high the odds were stacked against him. His legacy lies in his character and in those that he inspired with it.
Because, when we lie back at night and dream idly about winning world titles, we dream about doing it in the fashion he immortalised. We dream of fighting through all the blood, sweat and tears that Joe treated with so much contempt. In our dreams, we are the ultimate underdog, taking on the world with nothing but two fists and a heartbeat. We are Rocky Balboa. We are Roy of the Rovers with gloves and a gum shield.
In our dreams, we wish we were Smokin’ Joe Frazier.