Happy birthday to Joe Frazier, born on January 12, 1944 in Beaufort, South Carolina. Courage, heart and determination are prerequisites for a professional boxing career. But even by the tough standards of the prize ring, Frazier stands out as one of the greatest warriors in boxing history.
Frazier fled the south as a teenager, after a physical altercation with two white men. He would transplant himself to Philadelphia and emerge as the greatest boxing legend ever produced by a city that is famous for producing boxing legends.
Frazier won a gold medal in the 1964 Olympics and turned professional in August 1965. He immediately emerged as a one-man wrecking machine. A short, compact heavyweight, he was a relentless pressure fighter, bobbing and weaving his way into range and then tearing his opponents apart with hooks and uppercuts to the body and head.
In 1968 Frazier stopped Buster Mathis, who out-weighed him by 40 pounds, in Round 11. The win gained him wide-spread recognition as the World Heavyweight Champion. He finished the year by defeating the very talented Oscar Bonavena. In 1969 and 1970, he knocked out Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Ellis–both top heavyweight contenders of the day–and Bob Foster, arguably the hardest hitter in the history of the light heavyweight division.
But all of this of course took place during the years that Muhammad Ali’s was exiled from the sport, for refusing to be drafted into the Army. By 1971, Ali’s boxing license had been restored and the stage was set for one of the single biggest sporting events in world history.
When Frazier faced Ali in March 1971, the United States was in a state of near revolt. Ali was viewed as the champion of the anti-war youth and the civil rights movement. Frazier was unfairly cast as the hero of the establishment. The fight was seen as a proxy war for the political upheaval pulling at the fabric of American society.
But it would have been a huge fight in any era. Ali is the greatest heavyweight fighter in history and Frazier was perfectly designed to push him to his absolute limit. In their first battle, Frazier knocked Ali to the canvas in Round 15 and handed the GOAT the first loss of his career.
Their third fight, fought in Manila in October 1975, is the single greatest fight in Heavyweight Championship History. In a brutal war, Frazier pushed Ali to the brink of surrender–he reported later that he told his trainer Angelo Dundee to cut off his gloves following Round 14.
At the same time, Frazier’s eyes were swollen shut. He made a heroic last stand in Round 14, but clearly was unable to see most of the straight punches coming at him. Frazier’s trainer, the great Eddie Futch, refused to let him go out for the final round.
In my mind, the Ali-Frazier rivalry is the greatest rivalry in the history of all sports. The two pushed themselves beyond the scope of normal human endurance and forced each other to find depths of bravery and toughness that most men will never know.