Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Joe Frazier, 1944-2011

Joe Frazier, who won the undisputed heavyweight crown by beating Muhammad Ali in Madison Square Garden in 1971, has died at the age of 67 of liver cancer.

I will readily admit my money was on Ali that night and for many years I thought Frazier was ungracious towards Ali. In retrospect, it was Ali who treated Frazier unfairly, labeling Joe an Uncle Tom when he was anything but.  It wasn't Frazier's fault that the people who hated Ali needed someone to root for and their was no Great White Hope on the horizon, so many bigots had to pin their hopes on Frazier.  Frazier had also given Ali financial help earlier in their careers, so Ali's taunts were a very personal betrayal to Joe.

There's a line in the movie Gattaca about a competition between a genetically engineered man and his normal brother.  They are swimming out from the shore and the normal brother leads his allegedly superior sibling all the way.  When the genetically engineered brother finally gives up and asks how he lost, the normal one answers "I had no plan to swim back to shore."  This is a metaphor for Ali-Frazier I.  Frazier won a very hard fought battle that night and was never quite the same. Joe beat guys like Jerry Quarry, Ron Stander and Jimmy Ellis after this, but the rest of his career is defined by losing to both George Foreman and Ali twice.

Many boxing fans now consider Ali "The Greatest", his nickname for himself. This is in large part because Ali was lucky enough to be in his prime at a time when there were other great fighters at their peak who could test him.  When I was a kid, Rocky Marciano was revered because he retired undefeated.  Nowadays, Marciano is usually ranked under Ali even though Ali lost several times, largely because Marciano never had that great fight against another top boxer in his prime.

In the beginning of his career when he was still Cassius Clay, he faced a hard hitting Englishman named Henry Cooper who decked him. He also fought some underrated fighters who were tough as nails like George Chuvalo and Oscar Bonavena. (Frazier beat Chuvalo despite being decked twice in the second round.)  But if Ali is The Greatest, it's because he proved it against great fighters in their prime, most notably two other deserving champions, Joe Frazier and George Foreman.

Best wishes to the friends and family of Smokin' Joe Frazier, one of the toughest and hardest hitting heavyweights who ever lived, from a fan.


Anonymous said...

He hired me one summer to head the Summer in the Parks program for underprivileged kids. Paid for the whole thing in Philly. Tough guy, soft heart. He helped kids of military serving in Vietnam through the No Greater Love program. He was a truly stand up guy.

Matty Boy said...

Thanks for the story, Victor. Glad to hear he used his money to help other folks.

Abu Scooter said...

It's hard to imagine boxing in the '70s without any of Joe Frasier, Muhammad Ali and George Forman. Each one needed the other two, and the sport (and its fans) needed all three men.

Rest in peace, Smokin' Joe.

Matty Boy said...

The heavyweight division in the 1960s and 1970s was damned good, as exciting as the middleweights were in the 1950s. Of course there were Frazier, Ali and Foreman, but there were also great characters like Chuvalo, Bonavena and Cooper and lest we forget, Ken Norton.

Then came the Larry Holmes era and it really got boring.

ken said...

I recall George Foreman being on the Tonight show shortly before Johnny's retirement, and commenting about various fighters. He said that some guys, when they hit you, it really hurt. With Frazier, he said, it didn't hurt. Your knees would get all wobbly, but it didn't hurt.