The Smoke of a Legend: Joe Frazier pt. 3 – a legacy

A ll of this resulted in a record of 32-4-1.  At first glance, it doesn’t look like a particularly long or outstanding record all things said and done, but this is where specifics add to his laurels.  Fighters the ilk of Frazier generally have short careers because of the way they fight.  They win wars of attrition through force of will.  When you hear people talk about “The Philadelphia Fighter”, Joe Frazier is the archetype.  The Philadelphia Fighter is a blue collar brawler who, like his life and roots in factory work, grinds his opponents down in gritty displays of courage and power.  As exciting as this style is, it simply can’t be maintained for 100 fights.  Well, at least not these days. 

Now of those 37 fights, Frazier actually only lost to two men:  Ali and Foreman, each twice.  Everyone else he fought he beat, almost exclusively by a destructive knockout (27 KO’s).  Now during this era, the heavyweight division was so deep that all of the first and many of the second tier contenders were easily good enough to be champions today.  When he beat Ali to become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world in 1971, he was without question the greatest fighter alive at that time, and already one of the best to ever live.  The Draw against one Jumbo Cummings is unremarkable.  Frazier had come back to the ring in 1981 after retiring in ’76.  Whatever.  Good times.  Of the four losses, several things need to be said.

The two against Foreman were more than just the inevitability of Frazier having to fight a man who was simply too big and too strong – Frazier almost exclusively fought bigger men by definition.  Joe Bugner was 6’4”, as tall as Foreman, and he beat him fairly easily.  Ali was 6’3”, and so was Bob Foster, and Frazier KO’d Foster within two rounds.  When one looks at the Foreman fights, as one should with any fighter, one must always look through the context of history.  Foreman isn’t just a big, powerful man in a sport of size and power.  Foreman is the big powerful man in the history of the sport.  He is in his own right a legend of the ring, and two-time heavyweight champion of the world, and this is over two separate careers separated by ten years.  If you want to see some destruction, watch virtually any Foreman fight from the first half of his career.  Literally, any of them.  I mean, we’re talking taking all the contenders from what is dubbed “the Golden Age of Heavyweight Boxing” and punching them around the ring as if they were made of Play-Doh.  Here are some examples of particularly egregious ass-whippings:

Foreman vs:

Chuck Wepner – TKO 3 (The Chuck Wepner on whom the Rocky movies are based, except Rocky is actually based on Joe Frazier injected into Chuck’s white-ass body…)

George Chuvalo – TKO 3 (Chuvalo was never knocked down despite fighting Foreman, Ali, Frazier, Terrell, Ellis, Bonavena, Patterson, and a whole host of other fighters)         

Joe Frazier I – TKO 2 (It’s not that fun to watch for me, but it happened)

Ken Norton – KO 2 (This is the dude who broke Ali’s jaw in the first fight and fought the greatest 15th round of all time against Larry Holmes.  He made it two rounds…)

Gerry Cooney – KO 2 (Definitely need to see this one.  Cooney is the guy who ended Norton’s career.  He fought Foreman when Foreman was f-king 41, and the KO is almost as brutal as Cooney’s KO of Norton.  I’ve never seen a guy freeze in mid air and go straight down like that)

Ron Lyle – KO 5 (Possibly one of the most entertaining fights of all time.  This is post Ali, and there are about 50 knockdowns on both sides.  The famous call is “Foreman goes down, Foreman is down, Foreman is…LYLE IS DOWN, LYLE’S IN TROUBLE, LYLE IS READY TO…FOREMAN IS DOWN! IT’S ALL…LYLE’S IN TROUBLE! LYLE’S READY TO GO!!)

and of course, 

Micheal Moorer – KO 10 (Foreman regains the heavyweight championship of the world with a late KO.  Age:  45.  When a pundit was asked if this was a greater achievement than Nicklaus winning the Masters at 46, he replied, “no one was hitting Nicklaus…) 

So you see, the man it took to beat Joe Frazier twice was a man who would go on to become one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all time, and himself an Olympic gold medalist.  I’m talking up there with Ali, Dempsey, Jack Johnson, Joe Lewis, Marciano, etc.  Probably the greatest big man of all time. 

And of course, the only other man to defeat Frazier was possibly the greatest Heavyweight of all time.  Muhammad Ali.  And Ali only beat him on the second try…

You’ve heard the phrase that “styles make fights.”  This is precisely what made the three Ali-Frazier fights the greatest trilogy of all time, in all divisions.  Frazier is the quintessential brawler, and Ali the quintessential boxer.  They both had skills on the highest level, they both won Olympic gold (Ali 60 Rome, Frazier 64 Tokyo, Foreman 68 in Mexico City)  and in 1971 they were both undefeated and had legitimate claims to the heavyweight championship of the world.  Ali was of course stripped 3 years earlier for failure to be inducted into the service, and Frazier had destroyed (I mean destroyed) Jimmy Ellis in a box off to determine the new champion.  In the end, Frazier proved too much for Ali, wearing him down until finally knocking him down in the 15th with a famous long left hook.  Ali did absolutely everything he possibly could, and Frazier’s pressure was still too hot.  By the end, Ali’s jaw was grotesquely swollen, and the punch that actually knocked him down was so hard it would have probably killed anyone but an Ali. 

The second fight was not that great.  Neither man was champion, and though Ali won a decision it literally could have gone either way.  The third fight is, well, probably the most brutal fight in the history of the division.  Watch it.  By the end, Frazier’s eyes were so swollen that he couldn’t see, and Ali could barely stand up from pain and exhaustion.  Eddie Futch, Frazier’s trainer, stopped the fight in between the 14th and 15th rounds because Frazier was fighting blind and both guys were so gone that one of them would likely be killed.  Frazier actually wanted to keep fighting, which leads us to the final point I want to make.

Frazier was a fighter beyond a great fighter.  He had a few of those rare things that only a once or twice in a lifetime legends have if you’re lucky.  The only two men who ever beat him also had these things to varying degrees, and it’s why that division at that time is considered the greatest ever.

  The thing that defined Joe Frazier more than any single attribute was his will. All the coming forward, the pressure, the grinding power, all of that was nothing more than a reflection of a man who had greater force of will in the ring than perhaps any man who ever lived, and as it so happened Joe Frazier would be a fighter.  Yes, he had some great wins, but it is in his losses that Frazier actually shows the limitlessness of his greatness. 

In the first Foreman fight, Frazier was knocked down six times before the ref stopped the fight.  That’s right.  Usually a Foreman opponent got two before he was dead, and that was if he was lucky.  Frazier got knocked down six times and kept getting up until the ref had to stop it.  By the fourth or fifth one, Foreman began imploring the ref to stop the fight because, according to Foreman, “I knew, I just knew I was going to have to kill this guy to stop him.  If I knocked him down, he was going to keep getting up until I actually killed him.”  Think about that for a second.  Think of the courage and the will power it takes to get knocked down by a George Foreman, one of the hardest hitters in the history of the sport, and – forget about getting up a  second and third time –  what about the fifth? That as much as anything defines Frazier, who said of that loss “people say to me, ‘Man Joe, you got knocked down in that fight more times than any heavyweight in history!’  I say to them, ‘yeah, but I got up more times than any of ‘em ever did too.”


Now regarding the fights with Ali.  I’m willing to discount the second one for two reasons.  The first is that it really was that close.  The second will become clear.  In the third fight, both men took more punishment that almost anyone ever has.  The only reason Ali won that fight is because Frazier’s trainer literally wouldn’t let his man walk out into the boxing ring completely blind.  You hear that?  Frazier was going to walk into the 15th round to fight one of the greatest fighters of all time completely blind.   But if you watch the tape, it looks as though Frazier could still see out of his left eye.  So why did Futch stop the fight? Because he knew something that only Frazier and he knew at the time.

Frazier was blind in his left eye.

At some point in his career after the first Ali fight Frazier developed a cataract in his left eye that made him effectively blind in that eye.  He and Futch hid this fact from the boxing commission for years until well after he had retired.  In fact, his eye was gone by the time he fought Ali the second time, and by the third fight with Ali it was completely done. 

Think about that for a second.  He fought Ali twice with one eye, which makes it very, very difficult to judge depth – kind of important in a boxing, and Ali barely squeaked by both times.  Personally, I believe that, had Frazier had two good eyes in the second and particularly the third fight, he would have probably beaten Ali both times.  Almost without question he would have outlasted Ali and probably killed him in the third fight, but we will thankfully never know.  Ali himself said after that fight, in a moment of deference and humility amidst years of racial and personal abuse he heaped upon Frazier, that Joe Frazier could have beaten anyone in the world that night next to himself, and maintained for the rest of his career that Frazier was the toughest man he ever fought. 

As for the second Foreman fight, it likely would have turned out the same was as the first, although Frazier did markedly better until a special contact lens he had put in to help with the fight was knocked out.

So there you have it.  Joe Frazier – legend.  One of the greatest fighters of his generation and of all time.  The man who fought George Foreman and Muhammad Ali blind in one eye.  A great heavyweight champion, finally passing out of the realm of blood and pain.  We’re all going to miss you Joe.  You gave us everything and asked nothing in return.

The great tragedy of his career is not in his losses or his bad blood with Ali.  The great shame is that he never truly got the recognition he deserved because of the shadow of Ali.  Right now in Philadelphia, there is a statue of Rocky Balboa in front of the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum where Stallone ran in the movie’s most iconic scene.  There is no statue of Joe Frazier anywhere in the city.  But it’s not Stallone who ran those steps for real, it was Joe Frazier who literally jogged up and down them to train for the great fights he gave us.  It wasn’t Rocky who pounded away on carcasses, but Joe Frazier, when he worked in a slaughter house to make ends meet.  Ironically, the namesake who gave so much inspiration to Joe Frazier at the beginning of his life is the same as the one who stole his fame towards the end

If history has taught us anything, it’s that death has a funny way of beatifying.  We can finally take full stock of the man, and in this reflection we find more than we ever imagined.  .  Perhaps our country wants white heroes or movie stars, but for me, I’m talking the real McCoy.  This hero is no myth or story, this hero is real.  A great man, a great fighter, a legend.

Don’t believe me?  Go back through this post and see how many other legends I had to name just to describe him. 

Give Frazier his statue.  We need our kids to see it and ask us who he was.

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

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