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Birth of Joe Frazier

January 12, 1944

"They said you were through, Joe."
"They lied, pretty boy."

Joe Frazier is Muhammad Ali’s eternal rival. With his straightforward style, calm demeanor and grizzled countenance, he stood opposite to Ali in many ways - even when they weren’t glaring at each other from across the canvas. Though small for a heavyweight, Frazier fought some of the greatest heavyweights of all time without a shred of fear or hesitation. Joe Frazier, quietly brilliant as always, stands not in Ali’s shadow but should be remembered as his own man, a great man, standing shoulder to shoulder with The Greatest…

Frazier would later be painted by Ali and the press as an Uncle Tom and a champion of the white man, but Frazier was born and raised in the heart of racism, the rural South. Young Frazier took his first breaths in Beaufort, Carolina. He was the youngest of twelve children in a sharecropping family. Every day, the family would get up and work the fields, which the white men of the area owned. The land was poor, and they could raise little on it, but a considerable portion of what they did produce was taken by the whites as interest on the rented land. It was a half-step away from slavery.

The Fraziers scraped by, finding happiness where they could: in a moonshine still and a black-and-white television. Their extended family would gather around the TV set to watch boxing while Joe’s mother sold drinks for a quarter. One day, Joe’s uncle, noticing his strong build, remarked off-handedly, “that boy is gonna be another Joe Louis.” Young Frazier took this comment seriously. The next day he built a heavy bag out of rags, bricks and moss and hung it from an oak tree outside. He worked that bag every day for seven years.

Joe’s boxing career faced its biggest threat before he’d ever entered the ring. One day while working, he damaged his left arm while fleeing from an angry hog. The family couldn’t afford a doctor, so the arm was forced to heal on its own. He could never hold that arm straight again. What was a boxer without a jab? Nevertheless, Frazier became well-known as the toughest young man in Beaufort, a hard worker and a strong scrapper.

The true impetus for Frazier’s boxing career came when he was fifteen. He was working on a farm for a white family called Bellamy when a young black boy, aged about twelve, accidentally damaged one of the family’s tractors. Jim Bellamy flew into a rage and whipped the boy with his belt. When Joe told his friends what had happened, Bellamy grew angry with him, but Joe was no child. He told the man to keep his pants up, because no one would whip Joe Frazier. Unnerved, the man told Joe to run off, but Joe knew there was nowhere for him in the South anymore. He worked a few months elsewhere and set off for New York, then Philadelphia, where he would begin his boxing career.

Joe spent three years as an amateur, winning the Golden Gloves heavyweight championship every year and losing only to Buster Mathis. They met for the final time as amateurs during the 1964 Olympic Trials. Mathis wore his trunks high and the referee penalized Frazier two points (in a three-round bout!) for his punishing body blows. Frazier lost again and returned home, his Olympic dreams shattered. But Mathis was injured and Frazier was called to take his place. Joe flew to Tokyo and destroyed his opposition, returning to the States with a gold medal and a singular ambition: to become world champion.

Frazier turned pro in ‘65 and worked his way up the ladder. He stopped Buster Mathis in the eleventh round to take his NYSAC title and bounced many a hard shot off George Chavulo’s legendary chin. He thought of nothing except the heavyweight title, then held by Muhammad Ali, who was in full bloom as he himself was just blossoming. When Ali was exiled from the sport in ‘67, Frazier was furious. He personally petitioned Richard Nixon to reinstate Ali’s boxing license and gave Ali money to get by in the meantime. When an elimination tournament was arranged to decide an heir to Ali’s title, Frazier spat at the invitation. He waited years until the tournament was settled, then crushed the winner (himself a gymmate of Ali) in five rounds to take the title. When Ali returned, Joe Frazier was waiting for him.

Their bout would be billed as the Fight of the Century. Despite Frazier’s assistance during his absence, Ali mocked Frazier publicly, calling him an Uncle Tom. Such was Ali’s charisma that the popular opinion followed him, despite Joe’s own background. Frazier had been born to poverty and racism in the rural South; Ali had been born to wealth and comfort in the suburban North. A fire sparked in Frazier’s heart. This was the thanks he got. He would repay it in kind come fight night.

On March 8, 1971, Joe Frazier met Muhammad Ali in Madison Square Garden for the first of their three legendary bouts. Frazier was a notoriously slow starter, and Ali dominated the early rounds. Frazier came on hard in the middle rounds and dominated the fight late, even flooring Ali in the last round. The bout went the full fifteen-round distance and Frazier was awarded a clear unanimous decision. Ali tried to explain away the bout as a “white man’s decision,” though he privately acknowledged his defeat.

Frazier’s championship glory was brief. He defended his title twice before meeting George Foreman on January 22, 1973. Foreman knocked Frazier down six times en route to a second-round TKO victory. Foreman would later recall that he was more scared of Joe Frazier than anyone he’d ever fought.

Frazier got back on the horse, beating Aussie Joe Bugner and losing a controversial non-title snoozer to Muhammad Ali, who seemed more intent on clinching Frazier than hitting him. After finishing Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Ellis, Frazier got another shot at Ali, who’d shocked the world by knocking out George Foreman in their famous Rumble in the Jungle. They would meet in the Philippines on October 10, 1975 - the Thrilla in Manilla. 

They met at 10 in the morning (to accommodate US television schedules) in a metal-roofed arena, which trapped the mid-morning sun. Frazier would later estimate the heat in the ring to be 120 degrees, taking into account the additional heat of the ring lights. The two warriors fought furiously in their familiar pattern - Ali early, Frazier gaining steam in the middle rounds - but Frazier’s face had begun to swell. Frazier had been working the body, trying to slow Ali’s feet, while Ali had been working on Frazier’s head almost exclusively. Both plans were beginning to pay dividends. Ali’s feet were slowing, sure, but Frazier’s eyes were shutting. Ali gained the advantage as the fight stretched into the championship rounds as Frazier’s vision slowly faded into nothingness.

Between the fourteenth and fifteenth rounds, parallel scenes played out in opposite corners. Ali, who’d given his all to put Frazier away in the last round and come up empty, asked Angelo Dundee to end the bout. Dundee refused. Meanwhile, Eddie Futch, Frazier’s coach, told Frazier that he would end the bout. Frazier begged Futch to let the fight continue. “I want him, coach.” Eddie answered: “It’s all over. No one will forget what you did here today.” With that, he waved the fight off. Ali was still champion of the world.

Frazier fought once more, a rematch against George Foreman, who put him away in five - George always had Frazier’s number. Finding no place for himself in the world of boxing, Frazier retired, returning only for one fight in ‘81. Despite making millions in the ’70s, he lost almost everything through excessive generosity and financial mismanagement. He stayed in touch with boxing, raising fighters in his own boxing gym, including a son (Marvis Frazier) and a daughter (Jackie Frazier-Lyde). 

Frazier was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2011. Within a month, he was placed into hospice care. He died on November 11, 2011. Among those in attendance at his funeral was Muhammad Ali.

Tags: boxing Joe Frazier January 12 1944 sports sports history martial arts
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