The Smoke of a Legend: Joe Frazier pt. 2 – a fighter

I ’ve watched almost all his fights, and certainly the biggies at least ten times apiece.  I have been an Ali fan (see that?  Five seconds into boxing and you can’t mention one without the other)  for many years, and in the last few years or so I’ve spent my time getting to know Smokin’ Joe.  Holy sh-t.  The first thing I’m struck by when I watch Frazier is the fact that every single punch lands like he’s got a cinder block in his glove.  It literally looks like every punch hurts his opponent.  Ali never had that, and it’s not the same kind of nuclear-weapon destruction meted out by Foreman or a prime Tyson.  When Foreman knocked you out, you were left dizzy and wallowing on the canvas trying to clear your head.  When Frazier knocked you out, you laid there broken and done.  This was something altogether different:  Punishment.  Sure, getting knocked out by Liston sucked, but, as Floyd Patterson put it, “when Liston knocked me out at least it was over.  No pain.”  Against Frazier, you could be assured of a long, long night, even if it went four rounds.  It would be painful, it would be torturous, it would be hell, and worst of all, even if you hit him with your best shot that pain would keep coming until you quit.  Relentless.  Relentless punishment.

It was said by the great Archie Moore that Joe Frazier is the only man to imitate the style of Henry Armstrong.  What the hell does that mean?  Most people don’t even know who Henry Armstrong is.  Well, to understand this is to understand how to use your natural physiology to turn a disadvantage into an advantage in the ring.  As I said, Frazier was a comparatively short, stocky man for a heavyweight.  He routinely gave up three or four inches in height and more than a few lbs in weight as a result.  Unable to jab on the outside because of his shorter reach (which, incidentally, was shortened even more when his famous left hand was permanently crooked after an accident as a teenager), and always having to punch up at his opponents, Frazier molded his style on three main principles:

1.  If you can’t stay outside, come forward.  Constantly.  This meant that, if he was going to make it, he was going to have to be able to condition himself to wade through punches and constantly pressure his opponents by cutting off the ring to get inside on their chest so he could go to work.  It is an amazing thing to watch a Frazier fight with this in mind.  Watch his initial title fight against Jimmy Ellis, another Angelo Dundee fighter and a great boxer in his own right.  Frazier literally never takes a step back.  Moreover, he is constantly in Ellis’s chest, grinding away, never giving him a break or a breather, forcing him to fight Frazier’s fight by sheer force of will.  To fight Smokin’ Joe was to know that he would dictate the pace.  It was already decided.  That is a HUGE psychological advantage, because going in Frazier’s opponents already knew they were out of control.  Worse than that, to keep him off of you your only option was to fight by moving backwards, lest you recklessly decide to stand in and trade.  (The track record of fighters who made this misguided decision is, well…disappointing) I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to throw punches while stepping backward, but it’s about the most anti-physiology thing you can do.  Most of a boxer’s power comes not from his arms but from the leverage of his legs moving all his weight forward as the punch is thrown.  You can’t do that moving backwards.  All you can throw are arm punches, which have basically no power and as a result are completely ineffective.            

2.    If you’re too short to punch over your opponent’s gloves, make him drop them.  There’s two ways to do this, and Frazier did both brilliantly.   The first is simple.  Go to the body.  Frazier was a murderous body puncher.  Absolutely destructive.  It is said that Joe Frazier’s left hand was responsible for more damaged livers and kidneys than any other punch in boxing, and to take a Frazier left hand to the midsection was to be pissing blood for a week.  Ask Ali.  After the third Frazier fight, his doctor Ferdie Pacheco said that he helped Ali strip off his trunks and kidney pads to look him over.  Apparently, invisible to the crowd, were two giant hematomas on the soft tissue below his ribs from Frazier’s body punishment.  That fight was the beginning of the breakdown of Ali’s kidneys over the next 10 years.  The other organ in that area, the liver, is inconveniently located on the lower right side of the body under two or three dangling ribs which are not connected to the sternum.  In recent years the so-called “liver shot” KO has received national attention, as it is the one true body blow that can, with a single well-placed shot, end a fight.  This shot is often, but not exclusively, accompanied by several broken ribs, but that’s merely incidental.  The liver is a very delicate organ, and severe trauma is EXCRUCIATINGLY PAINFUL due to the blood vessels, bile, and the fact that it’s pretty soft.  Some examples:  Hatton-Castillo: 4 ribs, Roy Jones Jr. – Virgil Hill:  2 ribs, Hopkins-DeLaHoya, Ward-Gatti I, rd. 9 (watch this whole fight by the way – one of the greatest ever.), Lewis vs. Schmelling II: no broken ribs, but Schmelling is doubled over like a Jacob’s ladder before being pounded into the canvas like a fence post.  The list goes on and on.  I’ll cut it off, but in regards to Frazier consider the following.  His left hook is the stuff of legend, and I’ll talk about it soon.  Trust me.  But of all the fighters to have a powerful left hook, I can imagine nothing more frightening that a short bulldog of a fighter built like a fire plug who’s body is perfectly made for the task of wading into your chest and delivering a physiologically ideally leveraged punch directly into your liver over, and over, and over… 

Now the second part of all this is what Moore was referencing when he said Frazier was the only man to imitate the style of Henry Armstrong.  Armstrong was a lower weight fighter who peaked at welterweight (147), and fought approximately 175 times from ’31-’45.  He won 150 of them, and at one time held world titles in 3 divisions simultaneously when there were no in-between divisions and only one belt.  He should have won the forth but he got a draw nobody thought was a draw.  Anyway, Armstrong is generally ranked somewhere between 4-2 on the list of greatest fighters of  all time, usually second behind the great Sugar Ray Robinson.  What is unique about Armstrong’s style is that he made exceptional use of the duck in defense.  Now generally the duck is used far less that a slip (slightly moving side to side to avoid punches), blocking, or stepping away, because ducking takes far more energy, time, and motion.  So why did Armstrong do this?  Simple.  When a fighter ducks, you have to punch down to hit him.  That takes your hands away from your face.  That’s when you walked into a f-cking windmill of punches aimed at your head when your hands were down.

Frazier was perfectly built for this.  As he moved forward, Frazier was constantly ducking and weaving to avoid the varied assortment of blows that his desperate opponents would fling in his direction to slow him and keep him off of them.  When you watch a Frazier fight, particularly the first Ali fight, it’s clear.  Why did he have to get inside?  He was too damn short.  What’s the solution?  Get even shorter.  Now his opponents are desperately trying to fend of a target that’s often coming in at the level of their belly button and well inside the range of their punches.  So what happens when they throw a right hand straight down at Frazier?

3.  The left f-king hand.  Oh my god.  There have certainly been many people who hit harder than Frazier – Shavers, Tyson, Foreman, Liston – but these guys did business by overwhelming an opponent with only semi-controlled power.  The danger and destruction of Joe Frazier is the same kind of thing we’d see 20 years later from the right hand of Thomas Hearns.  Not only was his left hand strong, but it was accurate.  Accuracy scores points.  Power scores knockdowns.  Both of those things together are terrifying. 

 Frazier had many, many ways of delivering the left hand, and almost none of them were jabs.  Why?  Because a buzz saw only works if you get it on a board.  Everything about Frazier was about getting inside and firing the shotgun point blank where it was a sure thing.  As soon as that bell rang, here’s what happened:  Duck, step, duck, step, BOOM.  Repeat.  Now what if you refused to cooperate and kept your hands high?  So much the better.  Frazier would walk inside anyway and deliver the left hand to the body until you couldn’t take it any more and dropped to protect your body.  Now you’re even worse off than you were before, because that left hand is going upstairs and your body hurts to much to do anything about it.  Plus you’re going to be urinating pure blood for a month.  The best combination in boxing according to Joe Frazier?  Left hook to the body, left hook to the head. 

Now one of the things I find most appealing about Joe Frazier is that he also had what is known as a ”long left hook”.  This is the punch that floored Ali in the 15th in Ali/Frazier I.  This punch is comparatively rare in boxing for several reasons.  First, a hook derives its power from the fact that it is thrown tightly and compactly up close so it strikes perpendicular to your opponent’s chin.  (The chin is the perfect knockout punch because the jaw is a loose bone, and a perfect shot to the chin not only spins the head around but the vibrations from the shot rattle the jawbone and as a result the brain.)  The left hook capitalized off the tight leveraging of torque generated by rotation of the torso and front leg, so the farther back you go the less power you generally have.  Worse than that, the punch has to travel farther and tends to loop, which makes it much easier to avoid and leaves you open for straight counters down the middle.  Ordinarily, throwing this kind of punch against a straight, crisp puncher is a perfectly lovely way to get knocked the f-ck out.

Not for Frazier.  Again, physiology is everything here.  Frazier carried most of his power in his legs due to his stocky build.  By crouching down to duck, Frazier was essentially coiling a giant spring.  Then, when you followed him down with a punch, he would simultaneously rise up with all that power in his legs and deliver a murderous left hook that would travel the full length of his arm, connecting with deadly accuracy to your vulnerable chin.  (Are you starting to get a sense of why this man was so dangerous?  Everything about his style and body naturally contributed to your destruction.  Even while defending with the duck,  the defense which traditionally lends itself least to offense, he was actually loading up the left with the maximum possible power.  Terrifying)  I’ve never seen it, but according to many sources a Joe Frazier left hook was fully capable of lifting a 150 lb. heavy bag up high enough to dislodge it from the chains.

Now what all this adds up to:  The relentless pressure, the defense, and the powerful left hand, was a fight pattern that would repeat itself with grim determinism against every opponent he faced.  Frazier would walk out, bobbing and weaving, straight into your chest.  He would begin firing those deadly left hooks and right hands at you from all angles until the ref broke up the clinch, at which point Frazier would tap his gloves as if to say “here it comes again, boy” and go right back to business.   The pressure must have been immense.  Imagine having to fight a short, fire hydrantof a man with the skills and reflexes of an Olympic gold medalist, the speed of a welterweight, and hitting you with gloves that felt like they were filled with old locks and frozen meat, inconveniently forcing you to fight in a space no bigger than a phone booth.  At this distance he has all the advantages and you have none. The range has taken away all your power, negated all the boxing skills you developed in the gym, and on top of that he’s conditioned like a racehorse and has a chin like a cold war bunker.  You get no breaks save the one minute between rounds, no time to think, no time to feel him out, and all the while he’s raining down a varied and diverse assortment of the most painful body and head shots you’ve ever experienced.  Shots that break bones and alter speech patterns.  Any punches you are able to throw when you mercifully get a little space are going to be singular events with no hope of follow up, and even then you’re going to be fighting off your heels and throwing punches with no power.  “Smokin’” was the perfect nickname for it, because it must have felt exactly like trying to stop a slowly advancing freight train by pummeling it with a rolled up newspaper.  Eventually you’re going to end up with your back against the wall, and it’s going to run you over.

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at

2 Responses to “The Smoke of a Legend: Joe Frazier pt. 2 – a fighter” Subscribe