Smokin’ Joe Frazier passed away last night after a battle with liver cancer at the age of 67. He was a hall of fame boxing champion most famous for his rivalry with Muhammad Ali culminating in a trilogy of classic fights. He had a 32-4-1 record, won a gold medal for the United States Olympic team and a 1990 charter inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Little known fact: the Muhammad Ali era of boxing is a subject that fascinates me to no end. I’ve watched just about every Ali documentary there is and tried to digest as many books on his career as possible. Ali is the most inspirational athlete of all time and I just wish I could have been around to see his rise firsthand. With such love of Ali’s impact, I had no choice but to see Joe Frazier as the enemy. Wade, Bosh and James can complain all they want about how difficult it was to get booed for a season or two, but that’s a molehill next to Kilimanjaro compared to what Frazier had to go through. It’s one thing to get cursed at by fans, but it’s a whole other monster to have your victory seen as damn near a national tragedy.
When the “Fight Of The Century” took place, Frazier had to shoulder a weight that he didn’t deserve. Thanks to America’s need to have a polarizing hero and villain and Ali’s own dynamic rhetoric, Frazier represented the establishment. He was the same government that sent thousands to death in Vietnam and segregated the South. Frazier banned Ali from boxing for four years. He was an Uncle Tom. Frazier was Herman Cain with a mean left hook that was a work of art and weapon of mass destruction all at the same time.
But in actuality, Frazier was just a guy that defended his heavyweight title against Muhammad Ali. And he kicked his ass too. Frazier looked younger, more relentless and sharper than Ali the whole bout until dropping him with a lightning quick left hook in the 15th round that the challenger couldn’t recover from. Frazier’s victory was the triumphant moment of his career. But for everyone else, it was a devastating loss. The rock-bottom moment of Ali’s life story. The Russian defeating Rocky before the credits rolled. By just successfully defending his heavyweight title, Frazier earned most of America’s disdain and hatred. Years removed, their disdain for each other simmered well after both had left the ring and the public eye.
Instead of seeing Frazier as the bad guy that beat Ali, I’ll look at him as the tenacious boxer he was and one half of my favorite fight of all time: 1975?s Ali/Frazier III aka “The Thrilla In Manilla” where two men went in the ring and relentlessly tore one another to shreds for 14 rounds before Frazier’s corner threw in the towel moments before Ali was getting ready to do the same. And it’s good to know that the two rivals were able to bury the hatchet and come together in the last decade. “I think it’s time,” Frazier said back in 2000. “We should all get together and embrace one another and say, ‘The Lord has been good to us.”‘
And upon hearing about Frazier’s health issues, Ali offered his prayers: “The news about Joe is hard to believe and even harder to accept. Joe is a fighter and a champion and I am praying he is fighting now. My family and I are keeping Joe and his family in our daily prayers. Joe has a lot of friends pulling for him – and I’m one of them.”
We at TSS send condolences to the Frazier family and pray for Joe’s safe passage.