Legendary heavyweight boxing champion “Smoking Joe” Frazier is lacing up his gloves, subconsciously and not physically, for what is the final round of his life. Frazier has liver cancer and is now in hospice care. It is hard to imagine this great warrior not coming out of the corner when the bell rings, but inevitably we all will lose the final round as mortality claims us all. Knowing Frazier, he is not making apologies nor seeking sympathy, but engaging this final fight with the heart and dignity of a champion.
Joe Frazier had a stellar boxing career but it was overshadowed by his larger than life nemesis, Muhammad Ali. While Ali was the sizzle, Smokin’ Joe was the steak. Like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in basketball, Ali and Frazier saved the sport of boxing. Their rivalry ushered in the era of mega-purses for boxers in all weight classes. Who can forget their epic battle – “The Fight of the Century - in 1971 in Madison Square Garden? That fight pitted friends and family members against each other, as individuals were squarely in the camp of each fighter. Ali was not long from his suspension from boxing over his refusal to enter military service and he was the odds on favorite to win. What few remember is that Frazier had acted in solidarity with Ali when the champ had been stripped of his title by the World Boxing Association and refused to fight in a WBA sanctioned event. Still, Joe Frazier was seen by many as the pretender to the throne, and by many Blacks as a traitor for his seeming eagerness to take Ali’s place as the champ. Muhammad Ali gladly and willingly played up the rivalry and did everything he could to make Frazier the foil. In the end Frazier was victorious, even knocking Ali to the canvas, and walked out of the Garden the heavyweight champ. The first Ali-Frazier fight ushered in a new era of the boxing that has benefitted many fighters over the decades.
Joe Frazier was a true champion and his record proves it. He brought home Olympic gold in 1964 and continued his success as a professional. He was not flashy; in fact he was the blue-collar bruiser. Other fighters may have had more charisma, but when Joe Frazier stepped into the ring there was no doubt that he came to do some work. The image will always be of the short, muscular Frazier, head bobbing and weaving, as he pounded his opponents into submission. Even in fights when defeat was imminent, he refused to quit. Frazier withstood a torrent of blows from George Foreman, was knocked down six times, but exhibited the heart of a lion in trying to come back each time and continue to fight. The saying that “they don’t make them like that anymore” certainly applies to Joe Frazier. In an era when boxers have to be coaxed to fight each other, and money is the determinant of when fighters will square off, Joe Frazier was old school. If you told Joe the fight was going to be on the corner of a neighborhood in his native Beaufort, South Carolina, he would be there with his gloves laced and ready. Joe Frazier was Rocky before Sylvester Stallone brought that cinematic character to life as a symbol of the champ’s adopted home of Philadelphia.
Now, time and disease have entered the ring and Joe will eventually lose this battle. But our guess is that his opponent will be in for a fight. They really don’t know what they are up against. And until that final bell sounds, we suspect Joe Frazier is going to be bobbing and weaving, throwing those hard body blows and doing everything possible to stay on his feet. That is what a champion does and Joe Frazier is a true champion. We are cheering for you champ and we know that even in this fight you will ultimately be victorious and claim a crown that has far more value than any you have ever worn before.