by Cliff Rold
Joe Frazier was no man’s co-star.
Real boxing fans know that. The outpouring of grief, reverence, and admiration found in parts of the media, and throughout the field of social media make it clear. For them, us, Monday’s sad announcement that liver cancer had taken the former Heavyweight Champion of the World was, fittingly, a body blow.
Frazier was everything a fighter can be, as thrilling and honest a man inside the ring as there has ever been. Boxing lost a piece of the best of itself this week. Boxing lost Smokin’ Joe.
It is fitting in this week of farewell to remember just how good Frazier was, measured against all-time.
In looking back on the Frazier legacy, four categories will be examined:
2) Competition Faced
3) Competition Not Faced
4) Reaction to Adversity
It begins with…
The Tale of the Tape
Born: January 12, 1944
Height: 5’11 ½
Hailed From: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Beaufort, South Carolina)
Turned Professional: August 16, 1965 (TKO1 Woody Goss)
Record: 32-4-1, 27 KO, 3 KOBY
Record in Major Title Fights (Including Lineal Title Fights): 10-2, 8 KO, 2 KOBY
Lineal World Titles: World Heavyweight (March 16, 1970 – January 22, 1973, 4 Defenses)
Other Major Titles: NYSAC Heavyweight; WBA Heavyweight; WBC Heavyweight
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Defeated: 2 (Bob Foster KO2; Muhammad Ali UD15)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Faced in Defeat: 2
(George Foreman TKOBY 2, TKOBY 4; Muhammad Ali L12, RTD14)
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Defeated: 1 (Jimmy Ellis)
Despite a points defeat to Buster Mathis at the 1964 U.S. trials, Joe Frazier received a turn of good fortune and replaced an injured Mathis as first alternate at the Tokyo Olympics. Of his four opponents at the Games, only Germany’s Hans Huber, in the final, would make it all three rounds. Frazier left with the Gold Medal but would not enter the professional ranks until the summer of 1965.
Under the tutelage of Yank Durham, and later also Eddie Futch, Frazier would win 19 in a row, 17 by stop, to forge his way to title contention. With the Heavyweight championship picture opened up by the political stripping of Muhammad Ali, the World Boxing Association began a tournament to fill their vacant throne. Frazier spurned it. Instead, Frazier faced a by-then 23-0 professional in Mathis for recognition as champion by the New York State Athletic Commission. Frazier won in 11 rounds in March 1968.
The WBA tournament ultimately crowned Ellis in April 1968. Ellis and Frazier were matched in a unification contest in February 1970, the winner to be recognized as undisputed champion following a retirement announcement from Ali earlier in the month. Frazier eviscerated Ellis, rendering him unable to continue at the start of the fifth round.
Despite the Ellis win, Frazier’s true rival still loomed. Retirement did not last long and Ali’s return in late 1970 set the stage for the “Fight of the Century.” Over fifteen rounds on March 8, 1971, Frazier set aside any doubts about his place as champion with a unanimous decision victory over Ali.
Frazier would make two more successful defenses before succumbing to the explosive 1968 Olympic Gold Medalist at Heavyweight, George Foreman, in two rounds in January 1973. Frazier would challenge only once more for the crown, losing to Ali in their rubber match in October 1975.
Frazier was an inaugural member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
Along with his amateur and professional titles, Frazier collected an array of outside the ring honors. Frazier was named in, or as, the:
• Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year: 1967, 1970, 1971
• BWAA Fighter of the Year: 1969, 1971, 1975 (Co-honored with Ali)
• Ring Magazine Fight of the Year: 1969, 1971, 1973, 1975
• Ring Magazine Round of the Year: 1971, 1973, 1975
• #40 – Ring Magazine Top 50 Fighters of the Last 50 Years: June 1996
• #1, #4, & #93 – Ring Magazine 100 Greatest Title Fights All Time: Holiday 1996
• #10 – Boxing Illustrated All-Time Heavyweights: Nov/Dec 1997
• #8 – Ring Magazine Top 20 Heavyweights of All-Time: July 1998
• #5 – Ring Magazine 12 Most Exciting Rounds in Boxing History: March 2001
• #42 – Ring Magazine 80 Best Fighters of the Last 80 Years: Annual 2002
• #39 – Ring Magazine Top 100 Punchers of All Time: 2003 Ring Yearbook
• #7 – BoxingScene Top 25 Heavyweights of All Time: March 2010
Frazier didn’t waste much time on his way up the ranks. He reeled off eleven knockouts in a row before facing top ten Heavyweight Oscar Bonavena in September 1966, just over a year into his career. Frazier came off the floor twice to score a decision win. He’d add a pair of still-able veterans, Eddie Machen and Doug Jones, to his resume after Bonavena. He was only the second man to stop both in their long ring tenures. In July 1967, Frazier would become the first man to stop iron-chinned contender George Chuvalo, a standing stop in just four rounds.
Mathis was undefeated when Frazier bested him and Frazier added some serious scalps in defense of the NYSAC crown. Manuel Ramos was a top ten threat; he lasted all of two rounds. Bonavena went the distance again but there would be no dramatic knockdowns to overcome. Excellent contender Jerry Quarry had lost only twice before his challenge of Frazier in June 1969, both times by competitive decision. After an all-time classic first round, Frazier took over. Quarry was stopped for the first time on cuts between the seventh and eight rounds in the Fight of the Year.
Ellis, who started as a Middleweight, was better as a Heavyweight and undefeated in the division prior to the Frazier contest (though many felt Ellis had been bested by Floyd Patterson one fight prior). Like Quarry and Chuvalo before him, Ellis had never been stopped before Frazier changed the distinction. Frazier followed the Ellis win by accepting the challenge of devastating Light Heavyweight Champion Bob Foster. Foster lasted less than four minutes.
Ali entered still in his 20s, at 31-0 and with a pair of comeback stoppage victories over Quarry and Bonavena. Frazier handed him his first defeat and dropped Ali for only the third time in his career. Frazier’s next two defenses came against sub-standard fare, but Foreman was anything but.
After Foreman, Frazier rebounded with a decision over contender Joe Bugner. Bugner was followed with five consecutive rematches against Ali (twice), Ellis, Quarry, and Foreman. Foreman, by then also a former champion, stopped Frazier in five rounds in June 1976. Frazier retired until December 1981, returning for one night to face Jumbo Cummings in a draw proving time had truly passed Frazier by.
Competition Not Faced
Frazier faced two of the greatest fighters who ever lived in Ali and Foreman so what he missed is going to be of less consequence than what he did not. It is still fair to wonder about some of the men Frazier didn’t share a ring with. On his way up the ranks, fights with veteran former champions Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston would have been exciting and Liston, even faded, would have been a dangerous test for a learning Frazier.
In the midst of his late 1960’s title chase, former beltholder Ernie Terrell was locked into the WBA tournament as was quality contender Thad Spencer. Jerry Quarry got to big punching Mac Foster before Frazier got the chance.
Looking at the boxing landscape after the Foreman loss, it’s fun to speculate about a fading Frazier matched with the likes of Ernie Shavers or Ron Lyle as they emerged in the ranks. That he instead pursued rematches with Ali and Foreman forgives those misses, but the fights would surely have been thrilling. A match with friend Ken Norton never came off, and by most accounts they had no desire to engage each other, but it would have been a welcome addition to the times.
Frazier fights usually were.
Reaction to Adversity
It’s easy to look and see Frazier being dropped six times in his first defeat. He got up six times and was still nodding to go on through glassy eyes. Lots of fighters claim to be willing to die in the ring in pursuit of victory. Frazier fought like it. That was how Frazier reacted to adversity.
No matter what, he was coming. He was going to keep coming. Stop him or fall.
The character of Frazier as a fighter is undeniable. He was as relentless and unforgiving a pressure fighter as boxing ever produced, and the pressure didn’t stop no matter the daze he was fighting through. Rising from the floor twice early on against Bonavena, and finding a way to win, hinted at the greatness to come.
In the first fight with Quarry, Frazier ate some massive shots in the hellish opening frame. He matched Quarry blow for blow and then turned up the heat. In the ninth round of the first fight with Ali, Frazier ate three of the hardest left hands imaginable in succession and, two rounds later, had Ali almost ready to go. In the fifteenth round, he put Ali on the deck.
He did it all without his full field of vision.
Frazier suffered from cataracts throughout his professional career, the first indications of problems coming before his debut professional fight. The bobbing and weaving style he employed kept him close to men, allowing him to hit what was there, and it worked.
Part of the legend of Middleweight great Harry Greb is, when he wasn’t training on whiskey and whores, he was kicking ass with only one good eye. Sam Langford, folklore tells, knocked out Tiger Flowers late in his career with blindness already creeping on him. Joe Frazier’s accomplishments, without full optical advantage, make frightening the thought of a clear-eyed Smokin’ Joe.
He joins Greb and Langford now in Valhalla. He is surely fitting right in.
Measured Against History
This week has seen an unfortunate number of fools pretending to eulogize Frazier by writing articles that are really about his greatest nemesis, rehashing once again a bunch of narcissistic generational angst best served for another time. They are outnumbered, but still too present.
The hell with them.
Joe Frazier’s career stands on its own.
In any generation besides his own, from the 1930s forward, Frazier’s would have been a bright star. How could it not have been? Frazier brought the goods in the ring like only a special handful ever have and he did it with a skill set refined for war.
Skill is the right word too. What Frazier did, the way he fought, is a style demanding he find ways to make up for a lack of height and shorter arms than most foes. His jab was smart and effective, his feet wise in positioning the next assault, and he was disciplined in the way he heaved bombs at the body and head. Great pressure fighting is a skill set all its own and Frazier was one of its finest artisans.
Outside the ring, he was among the most honored men the ring ever produced. Between the BWAA and Ring Magazine, he was honored as top fighter in five different years, those two bodies agreeing only once (1971).
Of the four Fight of the Year honorees he participated in, three were genuine action classics (both Ali battles and Quarry) and, against Foreman, he showed tremendous courage in defeat. The first and third Ali battles can be fairly judged the two best Heavyweight fights of all time, in whatever order, and both are in the running for the greatest fight in any division, ever. Frazier earned was part of a special warrior class of Fight of the Year action regulars like Rocky Marciano (3), Carmen Basilio (5), and Arturo Gatti (4).
It is worth noting, like Marciano, Frazier made those memories while holding the distinction of best fighter in the entire world for a time. Put aside all the silliness of pound-for-pound debates. The Heavyweight champ, then, now, and always, is the true king of the ring, the sports literal best.
Depending on where retrospect tells us Frazier truly took over as the class of the division, Frazier’s time at the absolute peak of the game began between 1968-70 and ended in 1973. Some might argue Frazier might not ever have got to the title if Ali had not suffered political struggles.
The way the two meshed in the ring, and the savagery Frazier unleashed on Ali before his eyes really started to go is a vote in Frazier’s favor. It’s more realistic to say those two were just destined to bring out the best in each other and neither was leaving this earth without a win over the other.
In the years Frazier ruled, culminating at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971, he cleaned out the Heavyweight division of his day and did it at a critical, impressive point in Heavyweight history. Frazier exploded into the title picture at a time when the old guard was fading and a new guard, a Heavyweight Golden era, was coming of age. There was also a win over Foster every bit as commendable in quality as Louis-Conn or Tyson-Spinks. It is overlooked because there was so much more for Frazier, but it merits a nod.
Sure, history will regard Frazier as the third best heavyweight of his era. Third in the greatest era the division ever produced counts for more than first measured against most of the rest of Heavyweight history.
He cleaned out his class and fell when the next great contender rose. Such is the way of things. The post-Foreman epilogue added to the legend he’d already forged. Frazier had proven greatness. Then he added to it.
There is no need to ask where Joe stacks up, measured against all-time. The answer is obvious. If Joe Frazier isn’t one of the all-time greats, the sport has none. Boxing is less for his passing.
It was so much more because of his contributions
Verdict on Joe Frazier: Rest In Peace, and Thank You Champ
Author’s Note: This is an occasional series examining the most accomplished of modern fighters in seeking to establish how their careers stack up with history’s finest. This special retro edition makes an exception for one of the finest ring warriors ever to grace the ring.
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel, the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]