Joe Frazier, who used a pounding left hook to fight his way to boxing’s heavyweight title, then battled Muhammad Ali in three epic matches and in the court of public opinion, has died. He was 67.
“The world has lost a great champion,” Ali said in a statement, according to ESPN. “I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration. My sympathy goes out to his family and loved ones.”
Known as “Smokin’ Joe,” Frazier won his first 29 bouts, from 1965 to 1972, and became the undisputed heavyweight champion with his Feb. 16, 1970, technical knockout of Jimmy Ellis in the fifth round at Madison Square Garden.
His second defense of the title, against Ali on March 8, 1971, would go down in boxing history as the “Fight of the Century.”
Both men entered the 1971 contest undefeated, and each earned $2.5 million, a lavish payout for a fighter at the time. Ali by then was a global celebrity, having been stripped of the heavyweight title four years earlier for refusing induction into the U.S. military during the war in Vietnam.
Ali called Frazier a gorilla who was “too ugly to be the champ” and, injecting the element of race, said “Anybody black who thinks Frazier can whup me is an Uncle Tom.”
In the 15th and final round, Frazier landed one of boxing’s most storied punches, a left hook that caught Ali on the jaw and knocked him down. Minutes later, Frazier was declared the winner by unanimous decision.
In “Boxing’s Greatest Fighters,” Bert Sugar recalled Frazier battling Ali that night:
“His head bobbing up and down to the metronomic movement of his body, his mouth pursed, sucking air much like a fish out of water, Frazier moved in relentlessly -- no qualms, no hesitations, no questions, just straight in like a hurricane -- his right a mere throat clearing for his devastating left. Time and again he rocked Ali, until at last Ali, hit so hard he couldn’t even limp, joined the ranks of the walking wounded. Joe Frazier had, at last, emerged from the shadow of Ali.”
‘Thrilla in Manila’
Frazier, who kept his title until George Foreman knocked him to the mat in Kingston, Jamaica, on Jan. 22, 1973, lost his rematch with Ali on Jan. 28, 1974. Ali prevailed again in their third and final meeting, the “Thrilla in Manila” on Jan. 10, 1975, when Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, stopped the fight following the 14th round on behalf of his exhausted fighter.
It came out later that Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, was also on the verge of throwing in the towel; Frazier’s corner had simply given in first.
After the fight Ali turned respectful toward Frazier, telling reporters the following morning, “I always bring out the best in the men I fight, but Joe Frazier, I’ll tell the world right now, brings out the best in me. I’m going to tell you, that’s one hell of a man, and God bless him.”
Frazier wasn’t so forgiving.
In his 1996 autobiography, “Smokin’ Joe,” written with Phil Berger, Frazier made clear the lasting antipathy he held for Ali, whom he referred to in the book as Cassius Clay -- Ali’s birth name, which he considered his “slave name.”
Noting that he had lobbied for Ali’s reinstatement in the sport to make the “Fight of the Century” possible, Frazier wrote:
“Joe Frazier didn’t turn his back on Cassius Clay when practically everyone else did. And for that, the scamboogah insulted me in the way most calculated to hurt -- by picturing me as a pawn of white folks. To me that was not only a low blow, it was a perfect example of Clay’s nature.”
Joseph William Frazier was born on Jan. 12, 1944, in Beaufort, South Carolina, the son of sharecroppers.
He began fighting competitively after going to the gym to get into shape. After losing to Buster Mathis in the 1964 Olympic trials, he replaced his injured opponent in the Summer Games in Tokyo and won a gold medal. He turned pro in 1965.
In 1968 he defeated Mathis for the New York State world heavyweight title. He added the World Boxing Association and World Boxing Council titles when he defeated Ellis in 1970.
Eighteen months after his last fight with Ali, Frazier in 1976 tried a comeback with a rematch against Foreman, who won in five rounds. He retired for good after one last fight, in 1981, a draw with Floyd Cummings. He ran a gym in Philadelphia and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
The millions he earned as a boxer were long gone by his later years, lost to excessive spending, failed business decisions and his own generosity, the New York Times reported in 2006. Frazier lived alone in an apartment above the gym he ran, the Times said.
“I don’t think I handled it right, because I certainly could have gone out more and done better for myself over the years,” he said. In recent years he did sell merchandise on his website and make paid appearances at events.
“I’m sorry that he is the way he is, but I didn’t have too much to do with it,” Frazier said. “It was the good man above. Maybe I did have a little to do with it, but God judges, you know what I’m saying?”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Charles W. Stevens at firstname.lastname@example.org