The boxing world lost one of its greatest champions Monday night with the death of former Heavyweight Champion Smokin’ Joe Frazier at the age of 67 following a brief battle with cancer.
Though he is probably best known for losses in the ring to Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, Frazier did defeat Ali in the “Fight of the Century” and was a key figure in what could be considered the greatest era in modern boxing history.
In the 1970s, being the Heavyweight Champion of the World was as important a title as any in sports. From humble beginning, Frazier went on to proudly hold the undisputed title for nearly three years.
Born and raised in Beaufort, South Carolina, Frazier moved to New York in 1959 and soon became one of the top amateur fighters in the Northeast. He won the Middle Atlantic Golden Gloves heavyweight championship three straight years from 1962-64 and was the only American boxer to win a gold medal at the 1964 Olympics.
When Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight crown in 1967, Frazier was among several boxers who stepped into the mix.
The WBA held an elimination tournament to replace Ali, but Frazier refused to participate in the tournament in protest of their decision to strip Ali of the title.
Instead, he fought Buster Mathis for the New York State Athletic Commission’s own version of the heavyweight title. After knocking out Buster Mathis (the only person to defeat Frazier during his amateur career), Frazier fought Jimmy Ellis, the winner of the WBA tournament, for the unified heavyweight championship on February 16, 1970.
After knocking down Ellis twice in the fourth round, Frazier won by TKO when Ellis didn’t come out for the fifth round.
In his first defense of the undisputed heavyweight championship, Frazier knocked out Bob Foster in the second round.
He then became part of the biggest fight in boxing history as Frazier and Ali met on March 8, 1971 in what was hyped as the “Fight of the Century.” In front of a Madison Square Garden crowd that included many of the top celebrities of the era, Ali and Frazier exchanged blows for 15 rounds before Frazier won a unanimous decision to retain the title.
He maintained the title for nearly two more years before losing to George Foreman in a fight best remembered for the immortal Howard Cosell line “Down goes Frazier.”
In January 1974 Frazier and Ali fought for the second time in a non-title fight with the winner likely getting a chance to fight Foreman. This time it was Ali that won a unanimous decision in the 12-round battle.
Over the next year and a half, Frazier won fights against Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Ellis and in October 1975 got a final shot against Ali, who had regained the heavyweight championship by defeating Foreman.
The “Thrilla in Manila” was the most action-packed of the three battles between the two champions and proved to be the zenith for both fighters.
Ali retained the title when Frazier was unable to return to the ring for the 15th round.
Frazier lost to George Foreman in a non-title rematch in 1976 and retired for boxing for five years before returning to the ring for one final time in December 1981. That 10-round fight with Floyd Cummings was ruled a draw to make Frazier’s final career record 32-4-1 with 27 knockouts.
While there may have been better boxers than the left-handed Frazier, there were not many greater fighters than the man who went from a world of seeming hopelessness as a young black man in the South in the late 1950s to an Olympic Champion and eventually to the heights of professional success.