Joe Frazier is dead at 67. I know you have heard this by now. Let’s just say I picked a hell of a week to go on vacation. I come back and one of my icons is dead. Not only that, but it is covered up by one of the most heinous and vile stories in the history of sports: The Penn State scandal. And did I mention I’m from Pennsylvania? At least vacation was fun.
Joe Frazier may have lost the defining trilogy of his career, dropping two of the three epic bouts against Muhammad Ali. That does not diminish his legacy, but in a way enhances it.
When Joe Frazier laced up the gloves against Muhammad Ali for the third and final time, it was supposed to be the culmination of Ali’s career. Frazier was done, washed up. The only reason Ali took the fight was because he believed it. Ali was to vanquish his old rival in dominating fashion, and the world would again be kissing his feat. I mean George Foreman TKO’d Frazier, and Ali KO’d Foreman. That’s the way it was supposed to be, right? Ali was going to “put a whuppin’” on Frazier, there was little doubt in that.
Frazier had other plans. In the early rounds, Ali looked like he would live up to his guarantee. “The Greatest” unleashed a fury of punches but Joe just kept coming. He would take whatever Ali could give and then some. Frazier was going to get to that body, punches to the head be damned.
The body punches started taking their toll, and Frazier began to turn the tide. He turned up his own offense. For the first time in Ali’s career, he did not have an answer. Ali tried to spread out his energy, unleashing flurries of punches in bunches. He tried the rope-a-dope that defeated Foreman. Nothing worked. It is reported in the seventh round, as they grappled against the ropes, Ali whispered in Joe’s ear, “Joe, they told me you was all washed up.” Frazier responded in a growl, “They lied.”
Frazier eventually tired. Ali danced around him, the final tango between two legendary foes. By round 13, Frazier was blind. His own cataract took care of the left eye. Ali’s punishment took care of the right. Frazier kept coming forward, swinging for the body and somehow, some way finding a way to connect. At one point an Ali combination sent Joe Frazier’s mouth guard flying into the stands. The mouth guard may have hit the ground, but Frazier refused.
After an equally brutal 14th round, Frazier’s trainer Eddie Futch could take no more. He decided to end the fight. Frazier’s little remaining energy was spent telling Futch to give him one more round, but it was over. “No one will forget what you did here today,” Futch reportedly told him. And no one ever will.
Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali faced off for the first time on March 8 , 1971 at Madison Square Garden. The “Fight of the Century” placed two undefeated heavyweight champions against each other for the first and likely last time. It is one of the few moments in sports that lived up to, and indeed surpassed its hype.
If you listened to Ali, he would win the fight quite easily and there would be no rivalry. After all, Frazier was sacrificing four inches and about 20 pounds. Plus on a skill level, Ali was a brand new Cadillac and Frazier a clunker that just kept running. In spite of all this, Frazier was controlling the fight, but just barely. Entering the 15th round the decision was still very much in the air.
About 30 seconds into the round Frazier lunged forward with his patented left hook and connected. That is the enduring image of Frazier: The smaller, less-skilled fighter leaping to land his best punch. The Greatest of All Time, Muhammad Ali falling backwards, majestically and landing flat on his back.
That will forever more be Smokin’ Joe Frazier’s legacy: With nothing but indomitable will power (and a hellacious left hook), an ordinary man or woman can do extraordinary things.
Rest in peace, Champ.