JOE FRAZIER is a country boy who lived by the old country adage that: “when you go to the big party, you dance with the one who brung ya.” In Frazier’s case it was a left hook. But to classify Frazier as merely a “left hooker” would be like saying Marilyn Monroe was a blonde.
The son of a South Carolina sharecropper, he became a boxer by accident. He first went to a gym to work himself into shape. Shortly after, he began fighting competitively and became one of the best amateur heavyweights in the nation. He didn’t lose until he ran into Buster Mathis, who decisioned him in the 1964 Olympic trials. But, Mathis suffered a hand injury and Frazier replaced him at the Summer Games in Tokyo and came home with a gold medal.
He turned pro under the guidance of Yank Durham in 1965 and ran off 11 straight wins until he ran into tough guy Oscar Bonavena, in September 1966. The Argentine dropped Frazier twice in one round, but Smokin’ Joe came off the deck — showing the Madison Square Garden crowd the heart and character that would mark his career — to win a 10-round unanimous decision.
After Bonavena, Frazier knocked out contenders Doug Jones (KO 5), George Chuvalo (TKO 4) and closed out the ’67 campaign with a 19-0 career record.
With Muhammad Ali’s exile from the sport, the heavyweight division was in disarray. While the WBA held an elimination tournament, Frazier was matched with his nemesis from his amateur days, Buster Mathis, for the New York State world title on March 4, 1968 at the Garden.
This time Mathis was not able to dance his way to victory over three rounds. A relentless Frazier wore down the bigger, heavier man, and stopped in the 11th round. From 1968-70, Frazier made six defenses, including a fifth-round TKO of WBA champ Jimmy Ellis in a unification fight. But in the summer of 1970, former champ Ali was granted a license to fight and the demand quickly grew for a showdown between the former undefeated champ and the reigning king.
In fall of 1970, Ali knocked out top contenders Jerry Quarry and Bonavena, setting the stage for the most anticipated heavyweight title fight since the Louis-Conn rematch of 1946.
Each fighter was paid the then-unheard of purse of $2.5 million. The build up to the fight was unparalleled in boxing history; transcending the sport — and the sporting world. On March 8, 1971, before a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden, the two waged one of the greatest heavyweight battles ever. In the 15th round, Frazier landed perhaps the most famous left hook in history, catching Ali on the jaw and dropping the former champ for a four-count. At the end of 15 grueling rounds, Frazier got the nod from all three judges and left the ring as the undisputed champ.
But the fight took a lot out of Frazier, who didn’t fight again the rest of the year. In 1972, he defended against two journeymen. His reign as champion ended in January of 1973, against George Foreman in Kingston, Jamaica. Foreman dropped Frazier six times before the fight was stopped in Round 2.
He beat Joe Bugner in his next fight, but dropped a 12-round decision to Ali in their rematch in Jan. 1974. He got back on the winning track to set the stage for a rubber match with Ali, who had since lifted the title from Foreman.
In the suffocating heat in Quezon City, just outside the Philippines capital of Manila, the two aging warriors dueled for 14 rounds in a bout Ali billed “The Thrilla in Manila.” Ali took the early rounds, before Frazier found his rhythm in the middle frames and attacked the champs body with both hands. But Ali turned the tide for good in the 10th and won the next four rounds. By the end of the 14th both fighters were exhausted, but Frazier’s eyes were nearly swollen shut, and his corner stopped the bout. Later, Ali said, “It was the closest I’ve come to death.”
Nine months later, Frazier tried to fight himself back into title contention with a rematch against Foreman, but was stopped in five rounds. He retired following the second Foreman fight. Five years later he launched a one-bout comeback, but drew with a journeyman, Jumbo Cummings, before hanging up the gloves for good.
The International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO) rates Frazier among the ten greatest heavyweights of all time. He is an inductee of both the International Boxing Hall of Fame and the World Boxing Hall of Fame.