Joe Frazier: A great fighter overshadowed by The Greatest

Joe Frazier after knocking down Muhammad Ali on March 8, 1971. (AP photo)

Joe Frazier after knocking down Muhammad Ali in Madison Square Garden in 1971. (AP photo)

Joe Frazier was the wrong man at the wrong time. He was a great fighter eclipsed by The Greatest. He ascended to the heavyweight time at a time when Muhammad Ali was in exile, and even after Frazier beat Ali in the Fight of the Century in March 1971 he came away somehow lessened.

Through force of personality, Ali became the People’s Champ. (And after he beat George Foreman, who’d beaten Frazier the year before, Ali was again the real champ.) But Ali was singularly unkind to the man who would be his greatest rival, calling him names that hurt Frazier almost until the day he died.

Smokin’ Joe wasn’t an intergalactic presence. He was simply a tough heavyweight from Philly who’d take five punches to swing the big left hook. His nemesis would, on a whim, uncork the Ali Shuffle or the Rope-a-Dope; Smokin’ Joe would duck his head and throw leather. He tried to be a singer, but the experiment didn’t take. In the public’s view, the pure fighter was never going to be more than a pure fighter.

And there was a time when that would’ve been just fine. But Ali was the most famous person in the world — bigger than his sport, bigger than any sport. He changed his name and converted to Islam. He took a stand and defied the draft. He spent 3 1/2 years not fighting in the prime of his career.  And yes, he was pretty, and yes, he could talk. (Long before he became Muhammad Ali, Cassius Clay was known as the Louisville Lip.)

Joe Frazier should have been seen as Ali’s peer; instead he became his foil. Ali won their second match in 1974, and he won again in the Thrilla in Manila in 1975, though “winning” might not be the proper word. After the punishment each man absorbed that frightful night, neither was ever the same. Ali famously told Mark Kram of Sports Illustrated that that experience was “the closest thing to dying that I know.”

If anything, the loss in Manila ennobled Frazier in a way that all his victories — even the one in Madison Square Garden over Ali — could not. We began to see him not just as the guy who wasn’t The Greatest but as maybe the most gallant fighter who ever lived. Alas, the gallantry was all he had left as a professional. He would fight only twice more.

Over the weekend came the stunning news that the toughest of the tough had liver cancer and was in a hospice. It was stunning because we thought only Ali could stop Smokin’ Joe. Frazier died last night, and his passing brought more than the usual sorrow that accompanies the loss of a great athlete. It wasn’t so much that we didn’t take note of him while he was alive — we noticed him, all right — but that we never quite afforded him his full due.

By Mark Bradley

58 comments Add your comment

NC Dawg

November 8th, 2011
10:47 am

NC Dawg

November 8th, 2011
10:48 am

…yet again.

Senior Citizen Kane

November 8th, 2011
11:03 am

The second Ali-Frazier fight should never have been awarded to Ali. It was at best a draw. And Ali should have been penalized by Tony Perez for repeatedly holding the back of Frazier’s neck. I’m sad to hear of the demise of a great champion and a good man.

Objective fan

November 8th, 2011
11:04 am

Rest in peace, Joe.

Sonny Clusters

November 8th, 2011
11:05 am

Like playing ball on a team with a Clusters . . .

Old School

November 8th, 2011
11:08 am

Great write-up Mark. RIP Joe, you will always be a champion.

Mark Bradley

November 8th, 2011
11:10 am

Kudos, NC Dawg. Yet again …

lanier

November 8th, 2011
11:11 am

smoking and poppin, tracking down his quarry, fun to see

Y B Average

November 8th, 2011
11:12 am

Apparently NC Dawg really needs a life – Thanks for the memories Smokin Joe…

Sonny Clusters

November 8th, 2011
11:13 am

“Smokin’ Joe would duck his head and throw leather.” – MB

Now, that’s some good writing. We was a writer like that once but we was better at playing ball.

Mark Bradley

November 8th, 2011
11:17 am

Thanks, Sonny.

juvenal

November 8th, 2011
11:18 am

a different era-now all we got is Manny…..

**Frederick(Bailey)Douglass**

November 8th, 2011
11:20 am

Well written.

Dude was tough as nails. The Thrilla in Manila was, indeed, a war. These two will go down similar to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Seeing who could outlive the other…

Didn’t know that he only fought two more times. I guess after losing the rubber match to Ali, there was little else to lace ‘em on for.

I’m drawn to Ali, because of his downright confidence and ability to back it up. I respect Joe Frazier because he played his role to perfection – the anti-hero that reminded the Greatest that he could be (and acutally was) beaten.

R.I.P Smoke

FBD

Mr. Phoenix

November 8th, 2011
11:20 am

I agree with you Senior, Clay was a dirty fighter that was never penalized for his cheating. As far as the greatest, I don’t buy it. I think Dempsey, Marciano, or Louis would have dealt him serious pain that he could not have handled.

SquillDog

November 8th, 2011
11:21 am

Show some class and respect NC Dawg. This isn’t the story you skip over to be first.

heartofdarkness

November 8th, 2011
11:25 am

There was something uniquely American about Joe Frazier’s faith, that if he just kept going forward, his fist would catch a jaw (or other body part), and end the fight. It took two warriors to reveal the greatness in each.
Mark, what was the name of the bridge in Louisville where Ali purportedly threw his Olympic medal in the river?

NC Dawg

November 8th, 2011
11:26 am

@SquillDog: Who said I skipped over the story, Squilly. Fine article, Mark. Sounds like Squills is just jealous he wasn’t the fastest reader or commenter.

Mark Bradley

November 8th, 2011
11:30 am

I’ll have to look up the name of the bridge, heartofdarkness. Though I must tell you that many consider the tossing of the medal story apocryphal.

Reality

November 8th, 2011
11:40 am

Ali was “The Greatest” because he wouldn’t stop telling people he was. Watch the Muhammed and Larry 30 for 30 documentary. You’ll see a real fighter in Holmes who was great like Ali, just didn’t self promote and make the media gush. Too many great fighters are overshadowed becuase they wouldn’t be loud and rude like Ali. It’s a shame.

Skeezix

November 8th, 2011
11:47 am

Joe: May God grant you eternal rest. You will be missed.

vmguru

November 8th, 2011
11:52 am

Nice article Mark. I always enjoy what you write and this was a very good one. I always kind of felt Joe Frazier got in Ali’s head a little because Joe really was that good and Ali knew it. Frazier definitely deserves to be considered one of the best ever. Sorry to hear about his passing.

Calibre Springs Dawg

November 8th, 2011
11:52 am

Joe is a legend and in my opinion not overshadowed at all. If youy truly like boxing than you know his legacy. “Reality” has hate for Ali. All the talk was to get at his opponents.

headley lamar

November 8th, 2011
12:05 pm

At the 1996 Olympics, Ali was re-presented a Gold.

According to Bob Costas, as he was introducing the segment, the story that Ali had thrown his medal into the river was a myth–that it had actually been lost in a move at some point.

However, in a newspaper interview in 1997 (a Kentucky paper–I don’t remember which one), Ali reaffirmed the story about throwing it into the river.

Which one is it?

teamguy

November 8th, 2011
12:08 pm

I was in Viet Nam for the first fight between Joe and Ali. .didn’t get to see it, but listened on AFR. .not many Ali fans in the room, since most of us were drafted and not too cowardly to serve. Ali wasn’t as good a fighter as Joe. .he got a lot of help from refs. .was actually beaten by Doug Jones early, but awarded the fight on points by judges who later became involved in his career. Joe was a great one. Sad to see the state of the game today…those truly were the glory years of heavyweight boxing.

Craig Skok

November 8th, 2011
12:10 pm

They were the right men at the right time. Neither would have been as great without the other. Awesome period in history.

headley lamar

November 8th, 2011
12:10 pm

Bradley you got connections.

Get Costas on the phone and ask him about it.

Reality

November 8th, 2011
12:12 pm

Calibre Springs Dawg – No hate for Ali. I do have hate for how easy it is for the media to fall in love with someone for the wrong reasons, and then say that their loud self- promotion is why they are great…

Biff Pocoroba Fan Club

November 8th, 2011
12:17 pm

The sad thing is that Frazier was more hurt by the words and insults Ali would throw at him than any punches thrown by Ali. I remember Ali calling him a gorilla and that really stung Frazier.

DC

November 8th, 2011
12:18 pm

I dont get the sonny clusters running joke…can anyone fill me in on it?

reebok

November 8th, 2011
12:26 pm

Joe was my favorite fighter of that era…I always liked him better than Ali…he was a great warrior. I doubt the heavyweight division will see the likes of his toughness, dignity and courage again.

BuckheadBill

November 8th, 2011
12:26 pm

This is not actually about boxing, however, the Young Harris College Mountain Lions will open the season Saturday @ 4:00 PM. Its homecoming and a great to make a trip to the Valley of Doom and see some beautiful country and great basketball.

Biff Pocoroba Fan Club

November 8th, 2011
12:28 pm

Ali’s comments hurt Smokin’ Joe way more than any punches did. He never got over Ali calling him a gorilla.

rlinaug

November 8th, 2011
12:32 pm

While Ali was in exile, he not only raised some public ire he also wasn’t making any money. Frazier support Ali’s stance and also gave Ali money to help him get by. Frazier even petitioned President Nixon to allow Ali back into the ring.

Once he was allowed to fight again, Ali called Smokin Joe and Uncle Tom and a “gorilla.” Smokin Joe never publicly denounced Ali, showing class Ali never had.

Ali came close to praising Frazier after their third fight. Still in the ring and amidst the chaos of the afterfight, Ali said, “Today, I’m the greatest, and joe frazier is second greatest.”

Now that Smokin Joe is dead, what would the Louisvile Lip say is he coud say it?

Matt in ATL

November 8th, 2011
12:41 pm

Smokin’ Joe was from South Carolina.

Matt in ATL

November 8th, 2011
12:45 pm

And great article, Mark.

headley lamar

November 8th, 2011
12:55 pm

I think everyone is waiting for the shoe to drop on the Paterno thing.

Paul in NH

November 8th, 2011
1:07 pm

Excellent article, Mark. RIP Joe Frazier

bjohndawg

November 8th, 2011
1:10 pm

Frazier was a true fighter. A boxer versus the entertainer. Nothing wrong with either, but because of the difference, Frazier never got his due. Good Article.

JT

November 8th, 2011
1:19 pm

Joe’s fight against Buster Mathis in ‘68 was my favorite, man what a slugfest. And Joe knocking down Ali on the cover of SI with the caption “End of the Ali Legend” has to be my favorite SI cover ever. You’ll be sadly missed Joe.

BravesFan79

November 8th, 2011
1:19 pm

RIP Smoking Joe. Frazier will always be more respected by me because of the taunts he suffered by big mouthed Ali, and the fact he went about his business quietly and respectfully. A far cry from “more talk than action” fighters like Floyd Mayweather of today. The world needs more Joe Fraizers.

Murray P.

November 8th, 2011
1:20 pm

Great column, Mark. I watched the Ali-Frazier fight in 1971 on closed circuit at the old Ritz Theater here in Brunswick. Great memories of all three of their fights. The sport of boxing is hardly the same today.

Mark Bradley

November 8th, 2011
1:22 pm

Thanks, Murray P.

ATL STEVE

November 8th, 2011
2:07 pm

Last I heard, Frazier had forgiven Ali for his cruel insults. If he can, why can’t we? Rest in peace Joe…you were one of the best!

skip

November 8th, 2011
2:42 pm

We lost Smokin’ Joe too soon. Ironic that the greatest boxer of all time, Sugar Ray Robinson, also died at 67.

michael

November 8th, 2011
5:00 pm

man I miss the early ’70’s !

JolleyOne

November 8th, 2011
5:01 pm

When you stop and consider that Frazier could really only see out of one eye, he was an immense talent. Not a lot of people know that about Joe, but it is true. RIP

heb11:1

November 8th, 2011
5:11 pm

But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him (Luke 12:5).

REZ EX

November 8th, 2011
5:24 pm

I suggest you all read THE GHOSTS OF MANILA about the Ali Frazier blood feud….greatest sports books I have ever read.

Ted Striker

November 8th, 2011
5:56 pm

Excellent tribute.

MSMORE

November 8th, 2011
6:12 pm

Thanks Mark for such wonderful article & talented man gone, oh so quickly. RIP Smoking Joe u will be missed. But u stepped into another ring that we can only pray to meet u there. God Bless the Family