Frazier, Joseph William ("Joe")

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FRAZIER, Joseph William ("Joe")

(b. 12 January 1944 in Beaufort, South Carolina), Olympic gold medalist in boxing in 1964, New York world heavyweight champion from 1968 to 1969, and unified world heavyweight champion between 1970 and 1973.

One of thirteen children and the youngest of seven sons born to Rubin and Dolly Frazier, Frazier grew up in poverty in rural South Carolina. A sharecropper, woodcutter, and junk dealer, Rubin Frazier lost an arm in an automobile accident shortly before Joe was born. In part as a consequence of their father's disability, all the Frazier children contributed to the household income by picking vegetables for fifteen cents a crate. An indifferent student, Frazier dropped out of high school in the tenth grade and, in 1959, married his childhood sweetheart, Florence Smith.

Frazier went north in search of work. He stayed briefly with relatives in New York City and worked for a short time in the garment district before settling in Philadelphia, where he found a job as a butcher's apprentice in a kosher slaughterhouse. Living frugally, he sent most of the $75 he earned each week to Florence, who had, by that time, given birth to the first of the couple's seven children. The couple eventually divorced in 1985.

A weight problem drove Frazier to the Police Athletic League gymnasium in 1961. There he attracted the attention of veteran fight trainer Yancey "Yank" Durham, who, impressed with the speed and power of Frazier's punches, encouraged him to try boxing as a career.

Frazier enjoyed immediate success as an amateur. In 1962 he won the Philadelphia Golden Gloves novice heavyweight title, and he took the Middle Atlantic Golden Gloves heavyweight championships in 1962, 1963, and 1964. Named an alternate to the 1964 U.S. Olympic boxing team, Frazier replaced Buster Mathis after Mathis broke his thumb. Frazier made the most of his opportunity, winning the gold medal in the heavyweight competition.

In his professional debut on 16 August 1965, Frazier posted a first-round technical knockout of Woody Goss. He defeated former contenders Billy Daniels, Oscar Bonavena, and Eddie Machen in 1966, and by the end of the year was ranked sixth among heavyweights. After knocking out Doug Jones in the fifth round on 21 February 1967 and scoring a fourth-round technical knockout of George Chuvalo on 19 July, Frazier stood atop the division. Only three years after launching his professional career, Frazier was poised to claim the most coveted prize in all of boxing: the heavyweight crown.

When in 1967 Muhammad Ali was convicted in federal court of violating the Selective Service Act by refusing induction into the armed services during the Vietnam War, various boxing associations divested him of his titles and revoked his license to box in the United States. (The government had already invalidated his passport so he could not fight abroad.) To fill the vacated New York World Heavyweight Championship, the New York State Athletic Commission matched Frazier against his former nemesis, Buster Mathis, who had administered Frazier's only amateur defeat in the 1964 Olympic trials. At Madison Square Garden on 4 March 1968, Frazier stopped Mathis with an eleventh-round knockout. Between 1968 and 1969, Frazier successfully defended the title four times, besting Manuel Ramos, Bonavena, Dave Zyglewicz, and Jerry Quarry. He unified the heavyweight championship on 16 February 1970 with a fifth-round technical knockout of Jimmy Ellis, who held the World Boxing Association (WBA) crown.

Yet the three most celebrated bouts of Frazier's career took place not in the 1960s during his rise to preeminence but in the 1970s against Ali. Frazier and Ali met for the first time at Madison Square Garden on 8 March 1971 in an epic brawl that pundits christened the "Fight of the Century." In the months leading up to the contest a genuine animosity ripened between the two men. Ali denigrated Frazier as "too ugly to be the champ" and mocked him as an "Uncle Tom" who was the white man's plaything. Frazier retorted that "the fists are stronger than the mouth" and vowed to do his talking in the ring. Although Ali battered Frazier in the early rounds, Frazier's tenacity eventually wore Ali out. By the late rounds Ali was spent and Frazier went on the offensive. Midway through the fifteenth, Frazier connected with a mammoth left to the jaw that sent Ali sprawling onto the canvas. He struggled to his feet and finished the fight, but the judges awarded Frazier a unanimous decision.

Frazier defended the heavyweight crown against Terry Daniels and Ron Stander in 1972 before losing it in 1973 to George Foreman, who knocked him down six times in two rounds. Although Foreman had the title, 20,748 fans paid a then-record sum of $1,053,688 to watch Ali avenge his earlier defeat to Frazier, winning a twelve-round unanimous decision at Madison Square Garden on 28 January 1974.

Frazier and Ali fought for the last time on 1 October 1975 in Quezon City, Philippines, with the World Heavyweight Title, which Ali had wrested from Foreman the year before, at stake. Boxing savants consider the "Thrilla in Manila," as Ali dubbed the fight, among the greatest heavyweight confrontations in history. Frazier punished Ali, but in the late rounds Ali unleashed a pitiless onslaught that bloodied Frazier's mouth and swelled shut his left eye. At the end of the fourteenth round, Frazier's trainer, Eddie Futch, stopped the fight.

Frazier lost a rematch with Foreman in 1976 and did not fight again for five years, battling journeyman Floyd "Jumbo" Cummings to a draw in 1981 before permanently retiring. After leaving the ring, Frazier trained fighters at his gym in Philadelphia and became a singer, performing and recording with his band, Smokin' Joe and the Knockouts.

Elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990, Frazier compiled a record of 32 victories, 4 defeats, 1 draw, and 27 knockouts in 37 professional fights. In a career that spanned eleven years, he lost only to Ali and Foreman, and despite Ali's towering presence, it was Frazier who commanded the heavyweight division during the 1960s. Fighting him, Ali later confessed, "was the closest I've come to death."

Frazier, in collaboration with Phil Berger, wrote an informative autobiography, Smokin' Joe: The Autobiography of a Heavyweight Champion (1996). See also the interview with Frazier in Playboy (Mar. 1973). Although dated, John D. McCallum, The World Heavyweight Boxing Championship: A History (1974), contains a useful chapter on Frazier. Bert Randolph Sugar, ed., The Great Fights (1981), offers a detailed account of Frazier's most important bouts, especially those with Ali. Jeffrey Sammons, Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society (1988), presents a cultural history of boxing in which Frazier is discussed, and Mark Kram, The Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier (2001), reassesses the significance of their memorable confrontations in and out of the ring. In King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of the American Hero (1998), David Remnick explores the professional and personal relationship between Frazier and Ali. Thoughtful essays on Frazier include Dave Anderson, "Beaufort, S.C. Loves Frazier," New York Times (10 Apr. 1971) and Richard Sandomir, "No More Floating, No More Stinging: Ali Extends a Hand to Frazier," New York Times (15 Mar. 2001). James B. Roberts and Alexander G. Skutt, The Boxing Register: International Boxing Hall of Fame Official Record Book, provides a brief but intelligent assessment of Frazier's life and career, including a useful summary of all his professional fights.

Mark G. Malvasi