Frazier, Joe (1944—)

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Frazier, Joe (1944—)

Joe Frazier was a quintessential pressure fighter. He came forward at all costs, throwing his vaunted left hook at opponents until he broke their spirits or bodies or, as was often the case, both. A great heavyweight champion by any standard of measurement, Frazier left his mark in his three-fight series against Muhammad Ali. In 1967, Ali had been stripped of his heavyweight crown and his license to box for refusing induction into the United States Army during the Vietnam War. In Ali's absence, an elimination tournament was held to determine his successor to the heavyweight throne. Frazier won the tournament, tearing through the division's contenders and establishing himself as the best active heavyweight in the world. When Ali's license to box was reinstated, a superfight was made between Joe Frazier, the undefeated reigning champion, and Muhammad Ali, the undefeated former champ. The fight, which promised to be a thrilling encounter pitting Ali's speed and athleticism against Frazier's strength and determination, was billed as the "Fight of the Century." On March 8, 1971, at New York City's Madison Square Garden, Ali and Frazier split what was then a record-setting purse of five million dollars, and staged a fight that may have even exceeded its hype.

The fight was of such import that singer, actor, and pop culture icon Frank Sinatra was enlisted as a photographer for Life magazine. The bout's significance owed not merely to the high quality of the match itself, but also to the social and political symbolism attached to its participants. While Ali's refusal of induction into the armed forces and his outspoken stances on various political and religious issues made him a representative, in the eyes of many, of oppressed people all over the world, Frazier unwittingly came to represent the establishment and the status quo of the white American power structure. Smokin' Joe, as he was nicknamed for his relentless style, resented the perception of himself as the "white hope." Frazier was proud of his racial identity and noted on several occasions that, ironically, he was darker complected than Ali. Nevertheless, Ali vilified Frazier as representing white America, and in turn an enraged Frazier handed Ali his first professional loss, a 15 round unanimous decision defeat. Frazier even knocked Ali down in the last round for good measure.

The two boxers fought a rematch three years later, this time with no title on the line (as Frazier had lost his title in a humiliating knockout at the hands of the murderous hitting George Foreman). This time Ali took revenge with a 12 round unanimous decision victory. The third and final meeting rivaled their fist encounter as the most famous heavyweight title fight in history. Dubbed by Ali "The Thrilla in Manilla," this 1975 classic was a contest of wills unlike anything witnessed in the division's illustrious history. Ali was champion by this time, having knocked out the same George Foreman who so easily beat Frazier. Figuring that Frazier would be old and ineffective this time around (though Ali himself was the elder of the two by two years), Ali took him lightly and did not expect a tough fight. To add insult to injury, Ali took to calling him "The Gorilla." Frazier's pride was hurt once again by his antagonist, and he presented Ali with the toughest test of his career—14 grueling rounds, ending only when Frazier's chief cornerman, the venerable Eddie Futch, refused to let Joe whose eyes were swollen nearly shut, come out for the last round. Cast unwillingly in a role he despised, Joe Frazier nevertheless etched his name into the American consciousness. If Muhammad Ali was the greatest heavyweight champion who ever lived (and even if he was not), then Joe Frazier was his greatest rival. Their names go down in history together, as Frazier himself said, "whether he [Ali] likes it or not."

—Max Kellerman

Further Reading:

Frazier, Joe. Smokin' Joe: The Autobiography of a Heavyweight Champion of the World. New York, Macmillan, 1996.

Pepe, Phil. Come Out Smokin': Joe Frazier—The Champ Nobody Knew, New York, Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1972.