One of the 20th century’s greatest underdogs died this week. You could also describe him as one of the most courageous and brave figures in all of sport. And as well as being a man who is often listed amongst the greatest heavy-weight boxers of all time, as crucial to his story is his rise from extreme poverty to the front cover of Time Magazine in 1971, alongside his greatest rival, Muhammad Ali. Indeed, you can’t talk about Joe Frazier without mentioning Ali, but more significantly, the reverse is also true. This week, the man who made Ali so much greater than he ever could’ve been without him, died of liver cancer. Joe Frazier was 67.
That Time Magazine cover was to mark their 1971 Fight of the Century at Madison Square Gardens, as written about on the Roxborogh Report back in March. Both men were undefeated as heavy-weight world champions, with Frazier assuming the belt while Ali was in exile over his refusal to be drafted for the Vietnam War. Nobody, Frazier included, believed Frazier could legitimately hold that title unless he beat Ali and for a pay-cheque of $2.5 million each, both men went face-to-face just over 40 years ago this year. In knocking Ali to the canvas with his feared left-hook, Frazier achieved what nobody else had done to that point: he’d beatean Muhammad Ali.
It’s with that context you realise why the Ali-Foreman Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire in 1974 is so famous and so important to the legend of these three men. Frazier had beaten the great Ali, but lost in dramatic fashion to the young and thunderous George Foreman, getting knocked down no less than six times. If Frazier had beaten Ali and Foreman had beaten Frazier, few believed Ali stood a chance. As is now folklore, Ali won in one of the most tactically brilliant bouts of the era, cementing his legend as the only man to regain the heavy-weight crown. A year later, he nearly lost it again.
After the much forgotten second Ali-Frazier bout, won by Ali on points, the two resumed their rivalry in the tropical steam of Manila for now iconic Thrilla in Manila. This fight more than any other would define these two men for the rest of their careers. Going toe-toe over the entire bout, neither man receded any ground, trading ferocious blows with more consistent and bloody pummeling. With his eyes so swollen he could barely see, Frazier’s trainer refused to allow his charge to continue the fight in the 14th round, giving Ali the victory. Believing he would’ve won, Frazier was initially furious, though his trainer never regretted his decision, having previously witnessed no less than eight fighters die in the ring.
Not only had Frazier lost in the ring, but he’d lost outside of it too. For weeks Ali had taunted him as ugly, as a “gorilla,” as the white mans’ hero and worst of all, as an Uncle Tom. Virtually Ali’s equal as a boxer, Frazier, like most of the world, was not Ali’s match verbally and could not respond to what amounted to a shameful racist attack by a fellow black man.
For years Frazier lived with the pain not only of losing, but of history seeming to forget his role in the legend of Ali. While in exile, it was Frazier who’d lent Ali money and Frazier who’d personally lobbied President Nixon to reinstate Ali. And what was the thanks? The lowest insult one black man could say to another: that he was an Uncle Tom. Physically, the fight changed both men forever and many argue their cognitive and neurological declines started directly from this fight on.
But time did heal the emotional wounds and even though Frazier has died relatively young, he did forgive Ali, ultimately subscribing to the most fundamental of the Christian ideals to which he followed to the end. That all was forgiven is important to the story because as said before, Frazier made Ali so much greater than he would’ve been without him; so too George Foreman. Nobody cares about heavy-weight boxing any more because there are no stories behind the fights and fighters and the captivating backdrop of the civil-rights movement has passed. But in the 60s and 70s, these men really were fighting for something, be it there own survival in this world or the social change they believed in.
Ali has spoken kindly of Frazier since his death, but it is Foreman who has gone into more detail about what is was that made this underdog so great. Reprinted with kind thanks to georgeforeman.com, here is his tribute:
The One And Only Joe Frazier – By George Foreman
The term “one and only” has been widely used to introduce a many celebrity, athlete and politician. Generally they’ve appeared in print, TV or movies.
With most of these folks (one and only) is the last definition they deserve, because you see them at home, at work in the TV, Campaigning, visiting the poor; in the presence of the rich and famous.
You might see a different person; One hello for the rich, a goodby for the poor. Even a special hand shake for the haves and the have nots.
But this has never been the case with Smoking Joe Frazier. Truly the one and only. If you were his friend, you got no more than the stranger. “Jam Bugger” the highest compliment and form of praise, from Smoking Joe.
Joe Frazier, for me, was the first Champion I followed and studied. I wanted to fight him, one day, I looked for weakness: Anyone who treated big shots Big And the little person small, was a plastic person. This kind of person would melt when the going got rough.
With Joe: ( first time we met) I extended my hand to shake his; he held back his hand and said “George meet my wife” after I greeted his Mrs. He then said hello and nice to meet you George, with a firm hand shake. Nothing weak in his game. Everyone was the same. This scared me.
Joe Frazier had journeyed from the Southern part of the USA, worked hard to provide for his wife and children; making sure they’d have a better life than the one he found so hard. They would get a good education, and a chance to take part in the American dream. Which meant No bowing down to any man, woman or child. Church and service to Almighty God, would be first in the family’s life.
Preaching to your kids is one thing, but example was another. His very fighting stile was his way of life. When the bell rings. He would not back up from King Kong! I know, I knocked Joe down six time; when our fight was over, Joe was on his feet looking for me.
When the world changed: Joe Frazier had no respecter of persons. If you were a man, you got a hand shake, all women would get a personal “yes mam.” It didn’t matter the color of your skin; if you wanted to be friends, you could. You preferred not. Joe was willing to slam down anywhere, then a hand shake after.
The new world brought new names; Like ghetto; soul brother, Tom. Joe has been called them all. But just like the old Southern term “Boy.” Joe did not box around it,and has not side step any; but met them head on. With words like “Boogie,” And a song and dance.
Yes, when his fellow man had mean, a hurtful names for him, Joe got his band together and toured the world singing and dancing the Joe Frazier story. The world knows Joe Frazier, did it his way.
Talk about Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Even me ( George Foreman) but the fact is:
There is only one Smoking Joe.
“The One and Only Joe Frazier.”
– George Foreman