Tribute to Smokin’ Joe Frazier

One of the greatest boxers of all time, Smokin’ Joe Frazier, has left us. The son of a South Carolina sharecropper was born January 12, 1944 in Beaufort, South Carolina.


Joe became a boxer by accident. He first went to the gym to get in shape. Shortly after, he began fighting competitively and became one of the best amateur heavyweights in the nation. He did not lose until running into Buster Mathis, who decisioned him in the 1964 Olympic trials. After Mathis suffered a hand injury, Joe was asked to replace him at the Tokyo Summer Games. Joe became the only American boxer to win a gold medal in that Olympics despite fighting with an injured thumb in the final bout. 

In 1965, he turned pro under the guidance of Yank Durham and ran off 11 straight wins. Then on September 21, 1966, he ran into the very tough Oscar Bonavena. The Argentine dropped Frazier twice in the second round. Joe got up off the deck to show the Madison Square Garden crowd how much heart he had and went on to win the 10-round mixed decision.

After Bonavena, Frazier knocked out contenders Doug Jones (in round #5), George Chuvalo (TKO in round #4) and closed out the 1967 campaign with a 19-0 record.

With Muhammad Ali’s exile from the sport, the heavyweight division was in disarray and the WBA held an elimination tournament. Joe was matched with his arch nemesis from the amateur ranks, Mathis. On March 4, 1968, they fought at Madison Square Garden for the New York State title which at the time was recognized as the World Title.

This time Mathis was not able to dance his way to victory. The relentless Frazier wore the bigger, heavier man down (Mathis outweighed Joe by 39 pounds) to stop him in round 11. From 1968-70, Joe made six defenses of his title, including a fifth-round TKO of WBA champ Jimmy Ellis in an unification bout.

In the summer of 1970, Ali, the former champ, was granted a license to fight and the demand quickly grew for a showdown between the former undefeated champ and the reigning champion.

In the fall of 1970, Ali knocked out the top contenders Jerry Quarry and Bonavena to set the stage for the most anticipated heavyweight title fight since the Louis-Conn rematch of 1946.

Madison Square Garden, N.Y., N.Y., March 8, 1971, Ali vs Frazier I

Each fighter was paid the then-unheard of purse of $2.5 million. The build up for 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 to catch Ali on the jaw and drop 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 this fight took a lot out of Frazier and he didn’t fight again for the rest of the year. In 1972, he defended his title against two journeymen. His reign as champion ended January 22, 1973 when he faced George Foreman in Kingston, Jamaica. Frazier was knocked down three times in the first round, and three times in the second before Referee Arthur Mercante waved him off and stopped the bout to protect Joe from further punishment.

National Stadium, Kingston, Jamaica, January 22, 1973, Frazier vs Foreman

Joe then beat Joe Bugner in his next fight, but dropped a 12-round decision to Ali in their rematch on January 28, 1974. After Ali lifted the title from Foreman, Frazier, who had gotten himself back on the winning track, once again signed to fight Ali.

Araneta Coliseum, Quezon City, Philippines, Oct. 1, 1975, Ali vs Frazier III

In the suffocating heat of Quezon City, just outside the Philippines capital of Manila, the two aging warriors dueled it out for 14 rounds in a bout Ali billed as “The Thrilla in Manila.” They traded punches with a fervor that seemed unimaginable for heavyweights. Ali took the early rounds, before Frazier found his rhythm in the middle rounds and started attacking the champ’s body. Ali turned the tide in the 10th and most likely won the next four rounds. By the end of the 14th, both fighters were completely exhausted. Since Joe’s eyes were nearly swollen shut, his trainer Eddie Futch decided to throw in the towel. Joe had to be held back as he tried to go out for that final round. At the time Ali thought about quitting and later said, “It was the closest I’ve ever come to death.”

(L to R) Mohammad Ali, promoter Don King and Joe Frazier.

Nine months later, Joe tried to fight himself back into contention with a rematch against Foreman, but was stopped in round #5. He retired after that second Foreman fight. Five years later he launched a one-bout comeback, a draw, against a journeyman boxer by the name of Jumbo Cummings, before hanging up the gloves for good.

In 1990, Joe was inducted into Boxing’s Hall of Fame.

One of Joe’s favorite photos was taken by Gray Mortimore of ALLSPORT

















Another proud moment came when

Mr. Frazier gave me this thumbs up after I spent most of my evening taking photos of him with the patrons at the Pechanga Resort & Casino during an ESPN telecast, Feb. 12, 2010.    Photo: J. Wyatt


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