Vale Joe Frazier (1944-2011)
Little more than 6 weeks passed between diagnosis and death. Joe Frazier’s sad passing from a liver cancer so viciously advanced that he barely had much time to look back and contemplate upon his extraordinary life. He was just 67 years old.
Joe Frazier will forever be wedded to another great boxer, indeed considered by many to be the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time – Muhammed Ali, or Cassius Clay as he was known in his younger years.
Frazier resented the fact he had to live in Ali’s shadow. He considered himself the equal of Ali, and there are many who would agree they were equals among the Gods of the ring.
The very first time they fought each other in March 1971 at Madison Square Gardens in New York, the slugfest was billed as ‘The Fight Of The Century’.
That saying has since been overused like just another throwaway line, but back then it really did mean something. To give you an idea of just how big the fight was, here is a some brief background:
Ali had been stripped of his heavyweight crown in June 1967, for refusing to be inducted into the Army, and didn’t fight again until August 1970. Meanwhile, Frazier became world heavyweight champion in February 1970. “The Fight Of The Century” would be Frazier’s second title defence and Ali’s second comeback fight.
Just briefly on Ali, the 1960s was a period of great social unrest in the U.S. Non-whites weren’t allowed to vote until the 1968 federal elections. Ali refused to join the Army to go and fight in Vietnam, declaring: “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me nigger”.
I wonder how many of us would have the moral courage to stand up for what we strongly believe in as Ali did?
The fight was so huge around the world, my high school at the time, decided to beam the fight live into every classroom (late morning Eastern Australia Standard Time from memory). Admittedly, the school was keen to try out it’s brand new audio-visual setup, and what better opportunity! Also, many of the tough, gnarled Christian Brothers were also keen boxing fans.
Frazier and Ali will be remembered through the ages not only for the awesome quality of their craft, but because their contrasting styles complimented each other perfectly. Frazier was short and stocky, and like a relentless tide, coming on in continuous waves. He had an extraordinary shot output and a lethal left hook. He simply never gave his opponent any breathing space.
Ali was the antithesis of Frazier. He was tall and cool, and used the entire width and breadth of a ring like no-one else. His foot and hand speed was incredible. He was like a guerilla fighter, using ‘hit and run’ tactics, coming in with a flurry of left-right combinations, and then retreating around the ring before repeating the process.
Ali danced, and Frazier stalked.
I don’t remember much of the fight, probably because I was a huge Ali fan, and bitterly disappointed when he lost. Looking back, he put up an awesome fight, considering it was only his second comeback fight. Ali dominated early, but tired as Frazier’s relentless punching and lack of ring fitness began to find its mark.
Frazier decked Ali early in the 15th round, and was awarded the fight unanimously on points from the three judges. The two fought again in January 1974, a 12 round non-championship match, won unanimously on points this time, by Ali.
But I do remember the 3rd fight, ‘The Thrilla In Manila’, in October 1975. By then Ali was 33 and Frazier 31. Ali was world champion, having surprising knocked out George Formean the previous year. Frazier was the challenger, both men’s positions reversed from their first fight in 1971.
Both men were weary from their previous fights as well as fighting so many other great fighters in the period. Indeed, the decade and a bit from about 1967 through to about 1978 is rightly called the “golden era” of heavyweight boxing.
Not only did yo have Muhammed Ali (1942) and Joe Frazier (1944-2011), but there was also George Foreman (49), Larry Holmes (49), Ken Norton (43), Ron Lyle (41), Jimmy Young (48-2005), Ernie Shavers (45), Jerry Quarry (45-99), Jimmy Ellis (40), Buster Mathis (43-95), Oscar Bonavena (42-76), George Chuvalo (37), Floyd Patterson (35), Henry Cooper (34-2011), Ernie Terrell (39), Cleveland Williams (33-99) and Joe Bugner (1950).
The Phillipines in 1975 was under martial law from tyrannical President Ferdinand Marcos, and there was a malevolence in the air.
The Ali camp believed Frazier was all washed-up, and Ali took training casually, concentrating more on his affair with a stunningly beautiful “twenty-something”. Frazier meanwhile, trained like a trojan. When the bell sounded to start the fight, Ali came out flat-footed. There would be no dancing tonight.
Because the heat was similar to that of Zaire the previous year when Ali surprisingly beat the younger and stronger Foreman with his ‘rope-a-dope’ tactics, and believing Frazier to be frail and vulnerable, Ali wanted to end the fight quickly. Instead, it turned into one of the greatest slug-fests of all time.
The two men clearly didn’t like each other at the time, and their personal enmity added lustre to a brutal, quality fight you could never stage-manage. For 14 rounds, the two men barely moved around the ring, simply pelting each other with with a continuous barrage of punches. Ali used his height and reach to work over Frazier’s face, while Frazier got in close to relentlessly pound Ali’s stomach and innards.
At the end of the 14th round, Frazier’s face was so swollen he could hardly see, and his mouth was bleeding. Ali sat on his stool, barely able to breathe from the pounding around his stomach.
Frazier’s camp threw in the towel. Had they waited 30 seconds or so for the bell to start the 15th round, it’s unlikely Ali would have moved from his stool. As it was, Ali didn’t move for a seemingly long time. Usually, Ali’s trademark on winning a fight would be to leap from his corner and dance around the ring, proclaiming himself, “I am the greatest”. But not tonight. Not on this extremely hot and melancholy, yet extraordinary and enchanting October night of 1975.
Like the finish of the 2011 Melbourne Cup, when Dunaden won by a nostril width from Red Cadeaux after a grueling 3200 metres, so it was Ali had apparently outlasted Frazier by mere seconds.
It would be nice if the Frazier-Ali rivalry had a happy, fairytale ending, but alas and unfortunately, it doesn’t appear so. In his last weeks Frazier did say he had forgiven Ali for all the personal jibes over the years – referring to him as a gorilla in Manila, Uncle Tom (white man’s slave), and dim-witted. But almost ungraciously, Frazier added he was forgiving Ali because Ali was in worse shape than him.
Ali himself can barely speak these days, and shuffles around like a 100 year old, broken down man. A far cry from the days when he was the most recognisable face on the earth, with the fastest and smartest mouth on the universe, shooting out pun after clever pun with a machine gun rapidity.
You get the impression with Ali, and he often admitted as much, the talk was all for show and not meant to be personal. But Frazier never saw it this way. He took the barbs personally and deeply. Joe Frazier’s record as a boxer is perhaps inconsequential on the sad occasion of his passing, but it was considerable nevertheless.
He fought professionally 37 times, winning 32 (27 by KO). He suffered 4 defeats and had one draw. He also won the gold medal in the light-heavyweight division in 1964, following Ali (then Cassius Clay) in 1960. This seemed to be Frazier’s curse – always following in Ali’s footsteps.
However, we shall leave the last word of course, to Ali himself. This is what Ali said of Frazier after their brutal ‘Thrilla In Manila’ fight of 1975: “Joe Frazier, I’ll tell the world right now, brings out the best in me. I’m gonna tell ya, that’s one helluva man, and God bless him. He is the greatest fighter of all times, next to me”.
Vale Joe Frazier. A great fighter and good guy. God bless.
I used to think I was a pretty good rugby lock, but now realise I was deluded. My nickname is a truncation of my surname, so I'm not Arabic - phew! However, sometimes I imagine myself as a Beau Geste in the French Foreign Legion, fighting evil, righting wrongs, promoting good and rescuing damsels in distress.
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