Written by Pete Wolstencroft.
Photo by Danny Hill.
In the seventies you might have preferred reggae to rock, Magpie to Blue Peter, a close crop to a mane of flowing locks, but for many of us there was only one choice that really mattered: whether to support Frazier or Ali. I was always firmly in Smokin’ Joe’s camp. His blue collar style was much more my cup of tea. I won’t say that I hated Muhammad Ali, just that I would usually root for whoever was in the opposite corner. And on three memorable occasions that man was Joe Frazier.
Now that so many years have passed I recognise Ali for the sporting genius he was: a heavyweight with the speed of a lightweight. I also recognise that he was a major cultural figure whose iconic influence spanned the globe and touched on the world of civil liberties, politics and global power struggles.
But none of those things ever took away my liking for Frazier. Frazier was the twelfth child born to a family of dirt poor share croppers in Beaufort, South Carolina. His father, Ruben had lost the use of his left arm, but could still work most other men into the ground. He was also something of a ladies’ man. Young Joe inherited both his father’s work ethic and his love of the company of women.
As an amateur, Frazier represented the USA at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, where he won the gold medal at heavyweight, despite having fractured the thumb of his left hand in the semi-final. His opponent in the gold medal bout was the German, Hans Huber, who could not cope with Frazier’s non-stop aggression, even if he could not throw his signature left hook with any great venom due to the injury.
If any boxer was ever going to be synonymous with the left hook, it was Frazier. A childhood accident had damaged his left arm, leaving him unable to straighten the arm out completely. Joe turned this slight disability to his advantage and would throw the left hook continually during his fights. He might have been a son of South Carolina, but his fighting style was forged in the gyms of Philadelphia – the city of brotherly love. Philadelphia is still a proving ground for young boxers today. The fictional Rocky Balboa had his home there, but the idea for using slaughtered animals in an abattoir as punch bags, was not Rocky’s idea: it came from Smokin’ Joe.
Joe Frazier turned professional on the 16th of August 1965 and by the end of the year he had four knockout wins to his credit. In 1966, the legendary Eddie Futch was brought into the Frazier camp as assistant trainer to Yank Durham. The two trainers worked on refining Frazier’s style until it distilled into that peculiarly effective mix of high work rate, coupled with a constantly bobbing head that made Frazier hard to hit. I have watched a few videos of Frazier on Youtube recently and can scarcely believe just how effective that style was. Smokin’ Joe was a long way from being a slugger.
By the end of his second year as a pro, Frazier had won a ten round decision over Argentine brawler and legendary tough guy, Oscar Bonavena. It was clear that Frazier was not going to be a mere contender. From the Bonavena fight onwards, Frazier only ever fought in the top class. In his 17th fight, he became the first man to stop George Chuvalo in what was the Canadian’s 63rd professional fight. Today’s heavyweight hopefuls would not be expected to perform to that level so early on in their careers.
In 1968 Frazier beat former amateur foe Buster Mathis in a bout that was recognised as being for the world heavyweight title: in five states of the USA. True recognition as the undisputed world champ would come in 1970, when he knocked out Jimmy Ellis in the fifth round. At this time, former champion Muhammad Ali was still barred from boxing as a result of refusing to be drafted into the United States army; a principled stand that robbed him of his prime years. The hiatus, however, served one purpose. It set up that first match in his three fight series with Frazier. This was the first time that two undefeated heavyweight champions had met in the ring with the greatest prize in sport at stake. Frazier won a gruelling fifteen round decision in that fight: his relentless left hooking assault, complete with continually bobbing head prevailing over the flashier and more obvious skills of Ali. It was on that night that I, like many others, decided I would be a Frazier follower forever, and particularly if the man in the opposite corner was Ali.
As an older man, I can see that both of these champions were great. Ali needed Frazier to bring out the greatness in him. Without their rivalry, Ali’s career would have been diminished. Frazier was never again able to beat Ali; losing on points in their second meeting, and on a corner retirement at the end of the fourteenth round in the legendary Thrilla in Manila. When I met Frazier in Blackpool a short while before his death, his manager assured me, that had Joe answered the bell for the start of the fifteenth round, he would have won, because over in the other corner, Ali was begging Angelo Dundee to cut the gloves off: he had had enough. Perhaps that story was true, but boxing fans will know that it is best to be cautious with such tales.
The only other man to beat Frazier was George Foreman, who seemed always to have Frazier’s number. Their first fight was two round demolition job and the second one was not much better for Frazier, who was stopped in the fifth round by Big George. The fact that Frazier shaved his head moments before entering the ring in an attempt to intimidate the, by now, former champion, probably said more about his nerves than about his confidence on that night.
After the second loss to Foreman, Frazier was inactive for a long time. An ill advised last hurrah featured a draw against relative novice, Jumbo Cummings. The man they called Smokin’ Joe knew that such a result boded ill for further fights and he hung them up for good. Famously, however, he never officially announced his retirement and so for a while the ghost of Smokin’ Joe Frazier hung over the heavyweight division, as if lying in wait to ambush unworthy pretenders.
The final record says that Frazier had 37 fights of which he lost just four. No man ever beat him who had not worn the heavyweight crown. From his early fights he only ever mixed it with top class opposition. These days a heavyweight champion is likely to be over six feet four inches tall and is unlikely to be able to walk down the street unnoticed. Frazier was just a shade under six feet tall and would rarely have caught the eye, were it not for his habit of wearing gaudy, broad brimmed hats. But under those hats there stood a giant in the history of heavyweight boxing: Smokin’ Joe Frazier.