Another warrior passes into legend. The boxing great Joe Frazier died last night in hospice care from terminal liver cancer. Frazier, who won a gold at the 1964 Olympics, had a bomb of a left hook and the agility of a ballerina. He approached the boxing ring wine intelligence of a chess master and the heart of a real champion.
WSJ’s Jonathan Clegg discusses one of the highlights of his career: Joe Frazier’s legendary fight against Muhammad Ali:
Both fighters were undefeated. Virtually everyone on the planet was siding with one heavyweight or the other. Though he would later repeatedly apologize, Ali managed to transform the contest into a racial battle, and to cast Frazier as a champion of the white race. It was a blow that would bite Frazier for decades, but on that evening Smokin’ Joe exhibited a level of concentration and determination that was as strong as his vaunted left hook.
Ali was of course known for his rapier jab, and yet he was also a master at short-circuiting the psyches of his rivals.
For the first three rounds, Ali toyed with Frazier, but he could not penetrate Frazier’s will to win. As Frazier attacked, Ali grabbed and whispered, “You can’t beat me Joe, I’m God.” To which the devout Frazier famously snorted, “Then God is gonna get a whuppin’ tonight.”
In round 15, the lightning of Frazier’s left hook stretched Ali on the canvas. Frazier won a unanimous decision, but in his bottomless motivation to topple Ali, he had pushed his body so far beyond the redline of his limits that he was hospitalized and near death for days afterwards.
By the time of their third contest, the 1975 “Thrilla in Manila,” Frazier had been bounced off of the deck six times in one fight by the mighty George Foreman and lost his title. Ali was of the opinion that this Frazier was only a ghost of the gladiator he faced four years before.
He was dead wrong. In 115-degree heat, the furious battle of the titans tipped back and forth. In the late rounds, just when Frazier seemed on the cusp of stopping the champion, Ali surged. By the end of the 14th, Frazier was a human heavy bag. He was almost blind in one eye to begin with and now his other eye was shut.
Frazier’s trainer, the legendary Eddie Futch, had seen four men die in the squared circle and he wasn’t about to allow this to happen to his Joe. But Joe Frazier was an object lesson in what it means to commit yourself to a task.
“You can’t see…I’m going to stop it,” Futch calmly stated.
“Don’t! I can still feel him out there,” Frazier insisted.
Thankfully, Futch was brave enough to protect Frazier from himself. He ran up the white flag.
“In time Joe would come to understand, but he barely talked to Eddie for years because he stopped that fight,” said trainer Freddie Roach, who was also trained by Futch, “Joe was that kind of a warrior. He gave everything.”
Rest in peace, champ.