“Smokin’” Joe Frazier, a bruising boxer who was the first fighter to defeat Muhammad Ali and held the heavyweight crown for five years, has died after a fight with liver cancer. He was 67.
“We The Family of the 1964 Olympic Boxing Heavyweight Gold Medalist, Former Heavyweight Boxing Champion and International Boxing Hall of Fame Member Smokin’ Joe Frazier, regrets to inform you of his passing,” his family said in a statement released tonight. “He transitioned from this life as ‘One of God’s Men,’ on the eve of November 7, 2011 at his home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We thank you for your prayers for our Father and vast outpouring of love and support.”
Ali, in his inimitable style, mocked Frazier mercilessly in the build-up to each of their three fights, but he later paid tribute to the heart and spirit of the man.
“If God ever calls me to a holy war, I want Joe Frazier fighting beside me,” he said.
Frazier won the Olympic gold medal in the 1964 Games and with his punishing left hook was one of the greatest heavyweights in boxing history.
After his grueling third fight with Ali, billed as the “Thrilla in Manilla,” Ali said, “It was the closest I’ve come to death.”
Ali issued a brief statement with kind words for Frazier and expressed sympathy for his family.
“The world has lost a great Champion. I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration. My sympathy goes out to his family and loved ones,” Ali said Monday.
Frazier, the son of a South Carolina sharecropper born Jan. 12, 1944, in Beaufort, got into boxing by accident, according to the biography on his website. He went to a gym to get into shape, and picked up the rudiments of the sport so quickly he was soon fighting competitively.
As an amateur he was undefeated until he lost to Buster Mathis in the 1964 Olympic trials, but got to go to the games after Mathis hurt his hand and couldn’t fight.
When he turned pro in 1965, he tore through other heavyweights, racking up a 25-0 record before his matchup with Ali at New York’s Madison Square Garden in March 1971.
Among the toughest of those fights was a September 1966 bout with Oscar Bonavena of Argentina. Bonavena knocked him down twice in one round, but Frazier was unstoppable. He took the bout in a 10-round unanimous decision.
He won a share of the world heavyweight title in March 1968, with a TKO over Mathis at Madison Square Garden, and became undisputed champ when he scored a fifth-round TKO of World Boxing Association champ Jimmy Ellis in March 1970.
After Ali’s return to boxing in the summer of 1970, it was only a matter of time before the two men faced one another in the ring.
When the match was made, billed as “The Fight of the Century,” it was for a purse of $2.5 million for each – an astronomical figure for the sport at that time – and Ali’s verbal showmanship helped create excitement about the bout beyond the boxing world.
Ali ridiculed Frazier in the days leading up to the fight, calling him an “Uncle Tom,” and a shill for the white America that had barred Ali from the ring for the years that should have been the prime of his career.
The fight lived up to all the hype, considered by many to be the greatest in boxing history. Frazier’s left hook knocked Ali down in the 15th round for a four-count, and he won the decision, giving him the undisputed world championship.
“That was the greatest thing that ever happened in my life,” he said of the fight in an interview with The Associated Press several months ago.
Frazier held the crown until January 1973, when George Foreman knocked him down six times in the first two rounds and the fight was stopped.
He lost a 12-round rematch with Ali in January 1974, but after victories over journeymen Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Ellis, he was ready to face Ali again.
For “The Thrilla in Manilla,” both fighters were past their prime, but despite the heat in the Philippines, the fight lived up to the billing. Ali seemed to be in control in the early rounds, slipping Frazier’s punches and connecting repeatedly.
Frazier wouldn’t fall so easily. Through the middle rounds he punished Ali with body blows, but Ali survived and began connecting to Frazier’s face and head late in the fight, eventually doing so much damage that Frazier’s eyes were swollen shut and his ring stopped the fight after 14 rounds.
The fight essentially ended Frazier’s career. He lost a rematch with Foreman nine months later, and retired.
After an unsuccessful comeback attempt in 1981, he opened a gym in Philadelphia.
“Joe Frazier should be remembered as one of the greatest fighters of all time and a real man,” promoter Bob Arum told the AP this evening. “He’s a guy that stood up for himself. He didn’t compromise and always gave 100 percent in the ring. There was never a fight in the ring where Joe didn’t give 100 percent.”