I can remember sitting with my brother on the floor with our bowl of popcorn listening to the fights on the radio. This was long before pay per view. We listened carefully as the radio announcer described every move in that ring. We saved the images we had drummed up to memory and was elated as to how close we were to actualizing each blow when we sat on Saturday with our popcorn bowl to watch the fight on ABC Wide World Of Sports. We didn’t have to be awaken and told to do our chores on those Saturday mornings. We were up and done with our chores which consisted of yard work, mopping of the kitchen and bathroom floors, and the waxing of the floors throughout the rest of the house.
On one particular Saturday in March of 1971, we flopped down with anticipation on the living room floor with our popcorn to see the man who had knocked out the “Greatest”, Muhammad Ali. That man was “Smokin” Joe Frazier.
Joseph William “Joe” Frazier was a former Olympic gold medalist in boxing who had become the Heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Emerging as the top contender in the late 1960s, Frazier defeated Jerry Quarry, Oscar Bonavena, Buster Mathis, Eddie Machen, Doug Jones, George Chuvalo and Jimmy Ellis en route to becoming heavyweight champion in 1970. There was however a question as to whether he was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
Muhammad Ali born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. was stripped of the heavyweight boxing title in 1967, after he refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army for religious reasons. Ali had converted to the Nation of Islam. Ali’s boxing license was also suspended. Because he hadn’t lost his title in the ring, Ali was still considered by many including my brother, to be the legitimate champion.
In 1970, while his case was still on appeal, Ali was allowed to fight again. On August 12, 1970, with the help of Leroy R. Johnson, a Georgia State Senator, he was granted a license to box by the City of Atlanta Athletic Commission. In Atlanta on October 26, 1970, he stopped Jerry Quarry on a cut after three rounds. Shortly after the Quarry fight, the New York State Supreme Court ruled that Ali had been unjustly denied a boxing license. Once again able to fight in New York, he fought Oscar Bonavena at Madison Square Garden in December 1970. After a tough 14 rounds, Ali stopped Bonavena in the 15th, paving the way for a title fight against Joe Frazier, who was himself undefeated.
Ali and Frazier met in the ring on March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden. The fight, known as “The Fight of the Century,” was one of the most eagerly anticipated bouts of all times and remains one of the most famous. It featured two skilled, undefeated fighters, both of whom had legitimate claims to the heavyweight crown. Frank Sinatra who was unable to acquire a ringside seat took photos of the match for Life magazine. Legendary boxing announcer Don Dunphy and actor and boxing aficionado Burt Lancaster called the action for the broadcast, which reached millions of people. The fight lived up to all the hype, and Smokin Joe punctuated his victory by flooring Ali with a hard, leaping left hook in the 15th and final round. Joe Frazier retained the title on a unanimous decision, dealing Ali his first professional loss. Joe Frazier whom I had rooted for was now the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
Frazier went on to make two more defenses before running into nemesis George Foreman, who bounced him off the canvas six times en route to a second-round knockout loss in Kingston, Jamaica. Two fights later, Frazier faced Ali in their second fight, on Jan. 28, 1974, back at Madison Square Garden. It wasn’t contested for the world title, but rather a regional belt, and it wasn’t nearly as memorable as their other two bouts. Frazier lost a 12-round decision, and the series was even. Smokin Joe won his next two fights to earn another shot at the championship. That meant a rubber match with Ali, who had regained the title with his famed knockout of Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle”.
On Oct. 1, 1975, Frazier challenged Ali for the title in “The Thrilla in Manila.” In perhaps the greatest heavyweight championship fight ever, Frazier and Ali waged a pitched battle in the sweltering heat of the Araneta Coliseum in suburban Manila in the Philippines.
Both men were battered and bruised when Eddie Futch, Frazier’s legendary trainer, humanely stopped the fight after the 14th round. The site of Frazier, his left eye swollen nearly shut, sitting on his stool after the fight with his head down is one of boxing’s iconic images — though he had nothing to be ashamed of after giving every ounce he had in the fight.
Although Ali had beaten Frazier again to go up 2-1 in the series, he had been hurt badly by Frazier. After the fight, Ali famously said, “It was the closest I’ve come to death.”
Frazier would fight only twice more, getting knocked down twice in a fifth-round knockout loss to Foreman in a rematch in October 1975 and then returning for one final fight, a 10-round draw with Floyd “Jumbo” Cummings in December 1981.
Born Jan. 12, 1944, in Beaufort, S.C., was deeply hurt by the taunts Ali hurled at him during the promotion of their fights. Frazier had publicly supported Ali financially and in spirit during Ali’s exile Frazier was there when Ali could not find work or a friend and had been shunned by his Nation Of Islam.
On Monday November 7, 2011, Frazier at the age 67 lost his short battle with liver cancer.
Smokin Joe leaves a legacy as a boxer and a humanitarian that no one can dispute.
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