H2O Man's Journal
The death of former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier is a loss for more than the boxing community and the world of sports, for “Smokin' Joe” represented a significant part of what was solid and dependable in American culture during an era of turmoil and social unrest. While far too many professional athletes are elevated to the status of “role model” merely because of their athletic gifts, Joe Frazier was exactly the type of person that every community needs for its youth to look up to.
In the past 24 hours, I've watched numerous television reports on the life of Joe Frazier; read both newspaper and internet articles; and have spoken to a number of family members and friends, about their memories of this great champion. The passage of time since Frazier's ascent in the heavyweight division has, not surprisingly, created some gaps in the accuracy of some sports fan's memories. For example, I read about Ernie Terrell winning the WBA tournament, and heard a televison journalist's “memory” of Joe breaking Ali's jaw in the fifteenth round of “The Fight of the Century.” Thus, I think it might be both interesting and worthwhile to take a look back at Joe's historic career development.
My understanding of the intensity of this man might best be illustrated by a story about Joe Frazier in a locker room at the Utica College Sports Complex, in Utica, N.Y., on October 2, 1976. Joe had become the manager of heavyweight contender Duane Bobick, then 36-0, after the former Olympian's 26th fight. My brother was scheduled to fight on the undercard of Bobick's main event bout against tough Chuck Wepner. My brother-in-law, who was an amateur heavyweight, and who looked a lot like the young Joe Frazier, used to help me train my brother.
Now, this was less than four months after Joe's second bout with George Foreman. He was retired, but not so much so that he was that good-natured guy that people knew outside of boxing. (He did have one last fight, five years later.) The second that he walked into our section of the dressing room, his eyes locked on my brother-in-law. For a long moment, Joe Frazier was as silent as he was motionless; through narrow eyes, taking a measure of the young heavyweight standing in front of him. This I can say, without any risk of error: Joe Frazier was as intense as any man ever associated with the great sport of boxing.
The only word that comes close to capturing the atmosphere for that moment is “intimidating.” Not that anyone worried that there would be any problem in that locker room. But the very essence of Joe Frazier, definitely one of the most powerful of men to lace up the gloves, was – in the context of fight-night – primal. After Bobick stopped Wepner in six rounds, that same intense man, who's stare had raised the hairs on you neck, transformed into into the good-natured gentleman that was such a big part of the man.
Joe Frazier, born in South Carolina, is the very definition of a “Philadelphia fighter.” In 1962, '63, and '64, he would win the Mid-Atlantic Golden Gloves Heavyweight title. A giant heavyweight named Buster Mathis beat Joe in the Olympic trials in 1964, but pulled out as the result of breaking his hand while fighting Joe. Thus Frazier represented the United States at the Tokyo Olympics, winning the gold. It was only then that the public learned that Frazier had competed in those four bouts with a broken thumb.
Frazier's professional career was sponsored by Cloverlay, a corporation created by Philadelpia businessmen who paid $250 per share. Joe was trained by Yank Durham, who was assisted by Willie Reddish. Durham, an amateur boxer before WW2, became one of the top trainers at North Philly's legendary 23rd PAL gym. Reddish, who like Frazier was born in South Carolina before coming to Philadelphia and winning the Mid-Atlantic Golden Gloves, had been a heavyweight contender. He fought world champions Jersey Joe Walcott and John Henry Lewis, and also served as a sparring partner for the great Joe Louis. Reddish had previously trained heavyweight champion Charles “Sonny” Liston.
Boxing was, in many ways, a very different sport when Joe Frazier turned professional in 1965, than it is today. The heavyweight division, in particular, held the nation's interest, and the heavyweight champion was the most influential athlete on the planet. As an Olympic champion, Joe Frazier's career would be covered not only by the two top boxing magazines – The Ring and Boxing Illustrated – but by numerous other sports magazines, and virtually every good newspaper's sports section. Thus, when Joe Frazier won each of his four fights in 1965 by early knockouts, sports fans were paying close attention.
In 1966, Joe fought nine bouts, winning eight by knockout. While many were in Philadephia, Joe would also compete in high-profile bouts in the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, and at Madison Square Garden in New York City. These included fights against some of the top-ten contenders of that period, including Dick Wipperman (TKO 5); Billy Daniels, who was decked in rounds 2, 3, 4, and 6, before failing to come out for the seventh round; tough Oscar Bonavena, who dropped Joe twice in the second round, in a fight Joe won by a 10-round majority decision; and veteran Eddie Machen, who Joe stopped in ten.
1967 would prove to be a turning-point in boxing history; events both inside and outside of the ring would be impacted by the political atmosphere in America. Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali would defend his title twice, before being stripped of his title by boxing commissions, because of his refusal to be drafted into the US Army.
The young contender Smokin' Joe Frazier would start the year with impressive knockouts over Doug Jones and Jefferson Davis. Joe then decisioned tough veteran George “Scrape Iron” Johnson, one of Liston's top sparring partners (who later fought Liston, George Foreman, and Ron Lyle). This set the stage for Joe to fight George Chuvalo, who had won his last twelve fights by knockout.
It may be difficult for younger readers to appreciate what this fight represented. Chuvalo is the greatest fighter to come out of Canada. More, this guy set the bar very high for the Canadian tradition of “tough” fighters. Although George had been defeated by fighters including Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali, he had never been off his feet in the ring, much less knocked out. (A doctor who conducted a thorough examination of Chuvalo reported that his skull was literally 3/4ths an inch thicker than normal, which accounted for his legendary ability to take a punch. More important, George was a highly intelligent man, who knew how to use his skills to his full advantage – including breaking any rule he found inconvenient!)
The Frazier vs Chuvalo bout, held at Madison Square Garden, was televised live on network TV. For the first three rounds, this pair of powerful contenders stood toe-to-toe. But Joe would open cuts over George's eye, and began to inflict a severe beating on him before referee Johnny Colan stopped the bout late in the 4th round. The boxing community knew then that Joe Frazier was a uniquely talented fighter …. a heavyweight version of the great Henry Armstrong.
The WBA tournament – to find a new champion -- was about to begin. Frazier was offered a spot in it. However, Durham and Reddish had other plans for Joe. Although Frazier was definitely among the top in the division, they wanted him to get a few more fights in, before meeting two of the other top contenders who might be in the tournament. Durham had concerns about big Ernie Terrell, the 6' 6” contender with an 82” reach. Terrell, who had been awarded the WBA “title” for decisioning Eddie Machen in 1965, had defended that paper title twice, before being decisioned by Ali in February of 1967. And Reddish wanted Joe to have more experience before possibly meeting former champion Sonny Liston, who had won four knockouts on his comeback.
The Ali camp had considered a defense against Joe, until Muhammad lost his license. The Madison Square Garden match-makers had twice attempted to put Joe in against his former amateur rival, undefeated prospect Buster Mathis; the first offer was for $4,000, the second for $20,000, which was not enough for either fighter. Instead, Joe would knock out contender Tony Doyle in October, and journeyman Marion Connor in December.
At the time, many boxing fans were more interested in the WBA tournament, which featured eight top contenders. But Durham and Reddish knew exactly what they were doing. Doyle, for example, was 6' 4” tall, and that fight helped prepare Joe for a potential bout against Terrell. Connor was actually a light heavyweight, and although it appeared he posed no risk to Frazier, he was a fast, slick fighter. The WBA tournament was eventually won by Jimmy Ellis, the fast, slick former Ali sparring partner, who had moved up from the middleweight and light heavyweight divisions.
By early 1968, the promoters at the new Madison Square Garden were looking to promote a “super card,” featuring the “rubber match” between middleweight champion Emile Griffith and Nino Benvenuti, and headlined by a heavyweight “title” fight. After former champion Floyd Patterson turned down offers to fight either Frazier or Mathis, they secured a fight between the two undefeated contenders.
Buster Mathis has been reduced to a footnote in boxing history. That's a shame, because the 6' 3”, 243-pound fighter was actually a gifted fighter. Buster had both speed of hand and foot, and actually had power – he decked and stopped Chuck Wepner in his sixth pro fight, for example. But Mathis was not always disciplined in training, and thus frustrated both Cus D'Amato and Joe Louis, when they each attempted to harness his full talents.
Mathis would outbox Frazier in the early rounds of their March 4, 1968 bout. But Frazier's pressure began to take a toll in the middle rounds. Joe eventually flattend Buster in the 11th round, winning the heavyweight title of five states (IL, MA, ME, NY, & PA).
In June, Joe defended this title against the explosive-punching Mexican contender Manuel Ramos. Although Joe was stunned by a Ramos bomb in the first round, he would inflict a savage beating on his opponent and stop him in the second. Six months later, Frazier decisioned Oscar Bonavena in a 15-round fight.
1969 would mark the beginning of Frazier fighting twice a year. In April, he defended against Dave Zyglewicz. Dave was a relatively small heavyweight, at 5' 10” and about 190 pounds. He was a physically strong man, who worked in the construction industry between boxing matches. Although he had a 28-1 record going into this fight, most of his victories were over C-grade Texas opposition. Not only had Dave not faced a current top-ten opponent in building his record, but he had lost to Sam Wyatt (6-7-1) a year earlier. Since that loss, Dave had four victories over opponents with a combined record of 53-58-7. Frazier devastated the game but severely overmatched Zyglewitcz in one round.
(Years later, Dave served as the referee for one of my amateur bouts in Cooperstown, N.Y. During the pre-fight instructions, he said, “Okay, boys. You might have heard of me. I lost a home-town decision to Joe Frazier years ago!” A few years later, on another professional card, my brother-in-law and I worked my brother's corner when he upset Dave and Bob Miller's undefeated prospect. Dave was always a wonderful character outside of the ring. Miller, of course, is one of the top cut-men in the business. He still promotes fights near Albany, including those of his son Shannon. Bob is often seen on Showtimes fights held in Canada, working the corners of some of the best fighters in the world.)
Two months later, Joe met tough Jerry Quarry in what would be The Ring's “Fight of the Year.” After upsetting Floyd Patterson and Thad Spencer in the first two rounds of the WBA tournament, Jerry had lost a disappointing decision to Jimmy Ellis. Quarry then beat three unranked fighters who combined for a 7-22-3 record; stopped young contender Aaron Eastling in 5; then scored an impressive win over Buster Mathis.
By every measure, Jerry Quarry was at his prime when he entered the ring at Madison Square Garden that June night. And at many other times, that Jerry Quarry would have beaten the previous era's champions, and left the ring with the title. But he had the “hard luck” of running into the Smokin' Joe Frazier that was just beginning to peak. Steve Springer & Blake Chavez's book “Hard Luck: The Triumph and Tragedy of 'Irish' Jerry Quarry” (Lyons Press; 2011) provides the very best description of this classic battle. Although referee Arthur Mercante would be forced to stop the fight after the seventh round, due to cuts, Jerry had made a fight of it.
Joe Frazier proved himself to be far superior to anyone in the heavyweight division that night. This was the fight that, years later, George Foreman would speak of, when he told how after the bell rang to end a particularly tough round, Joe turned and with a huge grin, would pound his gloves against his own head. This was a warrior who loved the opportunity to match his strength and skills against those of the toughest opponent he could find.
Frazier would fight twice in 1970. In February, he met WBA champion Jimmy Ellis. Ali had announced his retirement before these two fought, making the fight fully recognized as being for the heavyweight championship of the world. Ellis had won twelve straight bouts, since leaving the middleweight division in 1964. More, he had devoped surprising punching power at the higher weight; five of those victories were first-round knockouts. He had even decked Oscar Bonavena twice.
On paper, this appeared to be an even fight. However, in the ring at Madison Square Garden, Smokin' Joe Frazier had reached his prime. Ellis was able to box well in the first two rounds, but Joe's bobbing-and-weaving kept Jimmy from landing any meaningful punches. Also, Frazier's intense body-punching was taking a toll on Ellis. The defending WBA champion could not escape the vicious left hook, which would put him down hard twice, before Angelo Dundee mercifully stopped the fight.
In November, Joe would defend his title against Bob Foster, the great light heavyweight champion. Foster had won the title from Dick Tiger in May of 1968, and had won eleven in a row after that. Although his only defeats had come in previous attempts to move up in weight, Foster had cleaned out the light heavyweight division. Frazier had likewise eliminated all the contenders in the heavyweight division – with the exception of Muhammad Ali, who had made his return to the ring the previous month.
This was a time when light heavyweight champions still challenged for the big title. Both Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano, for example, had defended the title in such bouts. Bob Foster, however, was no match for a prime Joe Frazier, and was knocked out in two brutal rounds.
That led directly to the March 8, 1971 “Fight of the Century,” between an undefeated Joe Frazier, and an undefeated Muhammad Ali. And, as everyone knows, Joe Frazier won that fight by decision. He hurt Ali seriously in the 11th round, and knocked him down in the 15th round with his left hook.
So much has been said and written about the three Frazier vs Ali fights, and the sometimes acrimonious relationship between these two great champions, that I've tried to focus more on other parts of Joe's career. Yet, it is a topic that cannot and should not be ignored. Each of these men were exactly one-half of the greatest trilogy in boxing's history. More, “Frazier versus Ali” was perhaps the single greatest rivalry in all of sports (including the Yankees versus the Red Sox).
I sat at ringside at the Madison Square Garden for their second fight. It was an experience that I'll never forget. And their “Thrilla in Manila” was perhaps the most brutal, hardest-fought title fight in heavyweight history. But there was only one “Fight of the Century,” with two undefeated, all-time great heavyweight champions squaring off. And after 15 rounds, it was Joe Frazier's hand that was raised in victory.
Last year, my son and daughter and I had the opportunity to have breakfast with Marvis Frazier, near Oneonta, N.Y. We conducted an interview with Marvis for Unlimited Fight News. I showed Marvis a copy of an old photograph that I had of him, at the age of seven, arm-wrestling with his father. Although Marvis is an absolute gentleman these days, it was easy to see that same “Frazier intensity,” which made him an amateur champion and a top contender in the professional ranks. More than that, though, we saw a Good Man who both loved and respected his Dad. Marvis had known Joe as the great heavyweight champion he was – definitely among that small, elite group of the best ever.
More importantly, Marvis knew his father as the outstanding man he was. And, by no coincidence, that is such a big part of what my family and friends who grew up in my generation have been talking about in the past day. Not just the Smokin' Joe Frazier, who dominated a talented heavyweight division, and who won the Fight of the Century. But that Joe Frazier who carried himself and conducted his life in such a dignified way that he served as a role model for millions of people. The loss we feel with the news of his death is a measure of just how much that man meant to us.
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