“Down goes Frazier – down goes Frazier”
Smokin’ Joe Frazier, who died today aged just 65, will forever be associated with that excitable bit of awed commentary, staggering around the ring in confused, blurred technicolor, Foreman landing unforgiving bombs on the back of his head. But if ever a man was short-changed by his soundbite it was he; for Frazier was truly one of the most astounding boxers that ever stalked a ring.
I’ve had a long, secret love affair with the 70s heavyweight boxers (not physically, I stress: I imagine that would hurt like hell). As a kid, I grew up with Tyson, Hagler and Hearns and the holy triumvirate of great British Middleweights – Benn, Watson and Eubank – but it was the footage of Ali, Frazier and so on that was the real fascination.
At first, it was all about Ali. Watching his interviews alone – never mind his fights – it was hard not to be captivated. The interviews leading up the Rumble in the Jungle (buy When We Were Kings) highlight Ali at his magnetic best. Shorn of his early brashness and more at peace than during the height of his Nation of Islam militancy, Ali was cute and mercilessly funny in his trashtalking. That he delivered the goods in the ring was merely the icing on the cake.
But as I dug into the scene, learning more about the guys that Ali fought, it was the steely dark presence of Joe Frazier that most fascinated. Frazier shared something in his attitude with Sonny Liston. Like Liston he was brought up in poverty and literally fought his way to the top of the tree. Like Liston his persona stood in stark contrast to that of Ali. No verbal slapstick accompanied his progress across the ring. Crouched low, head bobbing, snorting, shaking his head like a tethered bull. And completely, utterly relentless.
As a boxer, he held perhaps the most potent left hook ever seen in the ring. Ali was always vulnerable to left hooks. Even a relative unknown like Sonny Banks was able send Ali (then still just Cassius Clay) to the canvas with a left hook – not to mention Our ‘Enry, Ken Norton… and, of course, Frazier himself.
The Thrilla in Manilla has come to overshadow Frazier’s rivalry with Ali, but more significant was the ‘Fight of the Century’ when Frazier handed Ali his first professional defeat with a 15th round knockdown – delivered, of course, with that ferocious left hook. Much is and was made of Ali’s 43 month lay off before that fight. But entering the ring that night he was still young, still in his prime and as anyone who was watched the fight knows, was still possessed of much of the blistering hand speed and balance that had seen him clean out the division in the 60s.
On any other night, against any other fighter, Ali would have taken the bout by the middle rounds. But this was not any other not and this wasn’t any other fighter.
Frazier, as he always did, weathered the storm of Ali’s constant, numbing canter and peppering headshots. Walking through Ali’s best blows he came in again and again to deliver punishing body shots of his own. As the fight entered its second half Frazier merely became stronger. In the final round, he delivered the blow that he should be remembered for: a shocking left to the head that crumpled Ali and won the fight.
By that point, he could legitimately claim to be the best heavyweight alive. He had beaten Oscar Bonavena, Jerry Quarry, Ali, Bob Fost and George Chuvalo.
After the Fight of the Century, Ali was a changed boxer. By the famous Manilla rematch, his speed was a shadow of what it was and for the remainder of his career he would be involved in a number of victories that were ground out against largely forgotten (often unfairly) fighters like Norton, Shavers, Jimmy Young and Alfredo Evangelista. His ‘rope-a-dope’ tactic, adopted to stunning effect against Foreman, was really just a recognition that after his fight with Frazier his legs were gone.
Frazier showed Ali he was only human.
The only two men able to beat Frazier were Ali and Foreman. One a gilded, once-in-a-lifetime boxing genius – the other perhaps the most devastating puncher that ever lived. That tells you all you need to know about Frazier. He might have become defined by his relationship with Ali, but the best tribute is from the 58th minute on in the video below (until someone takes it down, anyway)