In Memoriam

A Great Champion Goes Down

Smokin' Joe -- great champion, great American.

By 11.9.11

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I like boxing. No apologies. I inherited the taste early from my father, who, along with all his blue-collar mates down at the plant, was a great fan of the sweet science in those pre-Marciano days.

Some years back, one of my community college students in a writing course, apparently laboring under the impression that I had some wisdom to impart, asked on the last day of class if I had any final advice. I think he was looking for something more general, but I told him there were three rules he should always follow, (1) use your jab, (2) throw combinations, and (3) work the body. He left somewhat puzzled.

Over the past half century I've watched some great fighters (and lots of palookas, of course). Smokin' Joe Frazier, of Philadelphia and Beaufort, South Carolina, who we lost Monday to liver cancer, belongs in the first tier. A great fighter and a classy man, taken too early at 67.

Frazier's great boxing career has been much remarked on, in TAS and elsewhere since his death. TAS-reading sports fans know of Frazier's 1964 Olympic gold medal, and his championship years. His career is highlighted by three stupendous fights with Cassius Clay, AKA Muhammad Ali, AKA a lot of other stuff that can't be printed here. Frazier was the first to defeat Ali when he outpointed him in 1971, decking Ali with a monster left hook in the last round.

The final Ali/Frazier fight in 1975, the famous "Thrilla in Manila," is the most grueling fight anyone can remember. Joe couldn't answer the bell in the final round of that one, and so lost. But it's not altogether clear that Ali could have either. Post-fight, Ali said it was as close to dying as he had ever come. Doctors probably wouldn't have given much for the chances of either of them at the end of what aficionados have no trouble calling the greatest fight in boxing history.

Frazier was a great champion, one of the fighters who along with Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, George Foreman, Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns, et al., made the seventies, melancholy in so many other respects, a great boxing decade. Perhaps not as great as the fifties, but memorable. It was a time when Americans knew and cared who the heavyweight champion was. 

The dignified Frazier was always connected to the clownish Ali through both fighters' long careers and afterward. But the two men could hardly have been more unalike. Ali was the consummate boxer with lighting fast hands, dazzling footwork, and great defensive skills. Frazier was the brawler. One of the hardest hitters in the history of the fight game who could be lethal inside, and who took a lot of punches to get there.  

The differences weren't just in fighting styles. Frazier was the un-Ali in all ways. He was the quiet foil to the ranting Ali. Joe never mugged in the ring (or out), never trash-talked his opponents, nor did silly little dances like Ali, the enfant terrible of the ring. Frazier was all business all the time. He just stalked his opponents relentlessly in the style of the great heavyweight he most resembled, Rocky Marciano. Smokin' Joe and the Rock were both undersized heavyweights (today the Rock would fight in the cruiser weight division), with left hooks that could knock the moon out of its orbit. 

Joe, one of 12 children, started out poor on a farm near Beaufort, much removed from young Cassius Clay's privileged middle-class upbringing in Louisville. There he learned about hard work that stood him well in the ring. He quietly went about achieving excellence in a very unquiet line of work. Always being a good citizen.

Ali, of course, was quite the other thing. He dissed his country by dodging the draft on the basis of a phony religious claim. He dissed his sport by decades of outrageous behavior, including doping off in the ring, hot-dogging tastelessly out of it, and insulting his opponents, especially Frazier, who he called an Uncle Tom (an outrageous and baseless charge) and a gorilla.

Ali was prone, before his illness imposed quiet upon him, to spouting silly doggerel verse that some, inexplicably, referred to as poetry. He waxed at length about his own supposed prettiness. He engaged in every form of show-boating known to man. He was in fact a spoiled, perpetual adolescent never obliged to grow up. The man in the fight game Ali most closely resembled was Howard Cosell, another blowhard.

The press and much of the glitterati went for Ali's act -- much like magpies attracted to shiny things of questionable value. For me, his boxing skills aside, Ali was one of the most repellent public figures of my lifetime. I've found it impossible to take anyone seriously who takes Ali and his act seriously.

Ali demanded and received more of the world's attention than Frazier did. So much the worse for the world. Ali was spawn of the self-indulgent, rock-besotted Me generation. Frazier represents the kind of adulthood that came before.

Frazier was Ali's match as a fighter. And his better by far as a man. Joe Frazier respected his country and the boxing game and gave back to both with character as well as skill and courage. The quiet virtues Smokin' Joe exhibited are the kind that build champions -- and nations.

R.I.P. Smokin' Joe. A great fighter. A great American. A champion.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.