As the only American boxer to emerge from the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games with a gold medal, Joseph William Frazier had an extremely bright future ahead of him.
After the Olympics, a group of local businessmen invested in Frazier’s professional career so that he could train full-time. When he made his professional debut in 1965, Frazier, a hungry, young southpaw from Beaufort, S.C., did not disappoint, defeating Woody Goss via technical knockout (TKO) in the first round. This would become a recurring theme throughout the first half of Frazier’s career.
In his first 24 fights, Frazier, appropriately nicknamed “Smokin’ Joe”, registered 21 knockouts, with the majority of those victories occurring within four rounds.
Nevertheless, despite Frazier’s rapid ascension, there was a cavernous void in the heavyweight division left by Muhammad Ali, who was stripped of the World Heavyweight Title for his refusal to be inducted into the United States Army during the Vietnam War. To add insult to injury, Ali had his boxing license suspended by the New York State Athletic Commission.
Although the top-ranked contender at the time, Frazier boycotted the 1967 World Boxing Association (WBA) Heavyweight Championship elimination tournament in support of Ali’s controversial stance.
However, the New York State Athletic Commission, the same organization that suspended Ali’s license the previous year, recognized Frazier as the “World Champion” following his 11th round knockout of Buster Mathis in March of 1968.
Less than two years later, on Feb. 16, 1970, Frazier brought some legitimacy back to the Heavyweight Title by knocking out Jimmy Ellis, the winner of the aforementioned WBA elimination tournament, in five rounds at Madison Square Garden.
After dispatching with Light-Heavyweight kingpin Bob Foster in two short rounds, Frazier would immerse himself in a rivalry that would define the rest of his career.
Within a five-year span, Ali and Frazier fought a total of 41 grueling rounds over three fights. The first two bouts went the distance, while the third and final bout mercifully ended with Frazier on his stool, virtually blind in one eye.
Their first encounter, dubbed the "Fight of the Century," set the tone for how fiercely Ali and Frazier would compete in the ring, and how they would come to loathe one another outside it.
“Smokin’ Joe” successfully defended the undisputed Heavyweight Championship via a 15-round unanimous decision, which was punctuated by a thunderous left hook that floored Ali in the final round.
But, similar to the pre-fight hype, Ali would continue to disrespect his heated rival, repeatedly calling Frazier an “Uncle Tom” for stating he would have fought in the Vietnam War if he was drafted.
Not surprisingly, Frazier felt betrayed because he had attended numerous tribunals, hearings and public relations functions in support of Ali throughout his exile from boxing.
Frazier was also a staunch supporter in efforts to have Ali’s license restored, and provided some financial support during the lean times Ali experienced when he was unable to ply his trade.
Ali would later assert that his vicious verbal attacks on Frazier were merely an attempt to promote the fights and increase the gate.
All the vitriol did, though, was drive a deep wedge between two African-American professional boxing superstars who could have accomplished as much, united in social activism, as they did in creating magic on opposite sides of a boxing ring.