PHILADELPHIA — Joe Frazier, the son of a South Carolina sharecropper who punched meat in a Philadelphia slaughterhouse before Rocky, won Olympic gold, and beat an undefeated Muhammad Ali to become one of the all-time heavyweight greats, died on Monday, his family said in a statement. He was 67.
Frazier, whose liver cancer was diagnosed about a month ago, spent his last days living under hospice care in a Center City apartment.
Frazier, known as “Smokin’ Joe,” was small for a heavyweight, just under 6 feet tall, but compensated with a relentless attack in the ring, bobbing and weaving as if his upper body were on a tightly coiled spring, constantly moving forward, and throwing more punches than most heavyweights.
“A kind of motorized Marciano” is how Time magazine described his style in a 1971 cover story before Frazier’s $5 million fight with Muhammad Ali, the first of their three epic battles and the most lucrative boxing match ever at the time.
Fans could watch Frazier fight for minutes at a time and not see him take one step back.
“There were fights when he didn’t step backward. He took very few backward steps in his career,” recalled Larry Merchant, the HBO boxing analyst, who was a Philadelphia newspaperman during Frazier’s early years. “What made him good was not so much his punching power as his willingness to keep coming and walking through the fire, his toughness and grit — and willingness to train so he could take the kind of punishment a fighter take in order to get to his opponent.”
Frazier’s signature weapon was a destructive left hook, which he used to win his first title in 1968 and floor Ali in their first meeting in 1971. He developed his powerful left as a young child, growing up without electricity or plumbing in rural Beaufort, S.C. His father had lost his left arm in a shooting over a mistress, and young Joe became his father’s left arm.
“When I was a boy, I used to pull a big cross saw with my dad. He’d use his right hand, so I’d have to use my left,” Frazier once said. After watching boxing on TV with his father, he filled a burlap sack with a brick, rags, corncobs, and moss, then hung it from a tree.
“For the next six, seven years damn near every day I’d hit that heavy bag for an hour at a time,” he wrote in his 1996 autobiography.
At age 15, Frazier moved north to New York and then Philadelphia, where he found work at Cross Bros. Meat Packing Co. in Kensington. He began training in a Police Athletic League gym, won three national Golden Gloves titles, and then a gold medal at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.
WARS WITH ALI
Frazier won the world heavyweight title in a series of elimination bouts from 1968 to 1970 while Ali was banned from boxing, but the accomplishment wasn’t complete. Ali had been stripped of his title in 1967 for refusing induction into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and remained the true champion to many fans during his exile from boxing.
Frazier was labeled the “official” champion. He lobbied privately for Ali’s return to boxing and even loaned him money. But as a match between the two became inevitable, he found himself in a mean-spirited psychological battle with the media-savvy Ali, who goaded him, calling him an “Uncle Tom” and a “gorilla.” Frazier, who preferred to speak through his actions, called Ali a draft dodger and referred to him by his original name, Cassius Clay.
The two came to represent the wider rifts in the nation during a turbulent era.
“Joe was a champion — and Ali was a hero,” Merchant recalled. “Joe was an ordinary guy, and Ali was an exceptional guy. ... People lined up on both sides.”
Frazier’s 1971 win over Ali at Madison Square Garden was his crowning achievement.
“He said if I whipped him that night, he would get on his knees, crawl across the ring, and say: ‘You are the greatest,’ “ Frazier said. “But he didn’t do that. I think he was trying to get to the hospital.”
He lost his world title in 1973 to George Foreman and never won it back. He lost twice after that to Ali, the last in the brutal “Thrilla in Manila” in 1975. Frazier ended his career with 32 wins, 27 by knockout, four losses, and one draw.
No ‘little-boy life’
Frazier was born on Jan. 12, 1944, one of 13 children of Rubin and Molly Frazier. In a 1974 interview with The Inquirer he said: “One day I was talking to a reporter, and it dawned on me I didn’t know what number I was, 13 or 12, so I got on the phone with my momma and asked her. I think I’m number 12. Thirteen, he died.”
Rubin Frazier was a sharecropper in the segregated South who made money on the side as a bootlegger. Joe was put to work chopping wood, picking cotton, and holding tools for his father as a 7-year-old, often starting his days at 4 a.m. “I never had a little-boy life,” he would say.
He had put boxing aside by the time he arrived in Philadelphia. Feeling overweight, he entered the PAL gym at 22d Street and Columbia Avenue and began drawing attention as a boxer. Under trainer Yancey “Yank” Durham, a former sparring partner to Joe Louis, Frazier won 37 of 40 amateur fights by knockout.
“Go out there and make smoke come from those gloves,” Durham used to say, inspiring the nickname “Smokin’ Joe.”
Frazier lost to Buster Mathis in the 1964 Olympic trials, but when Mathis injured a knuckle, Frazier took his place on the team. He won his first three bouts in Tokyo by knockout, breaking his thumb in the semifinal. Inspired at how his father had managed without a left arm, Frazier outpointed Germany’s Hans Huber with a painful broken thumb to win the gold medal.
Frazier had married Florence Smith in Beaufort when he was 17 and she was 15. The family, with three young children, struggled when he returned from the Olympics to Philadelphia.
A newspaper story explaining their plight prompted civic leaders to give the family money and toys for Christmas, and that eventually led to an unusual business arrangement.
The Rev. William H. Gray of Bright Hope Baptist Church, who had given Frazier odd jobs at the church, introduced the boxer to F. Bruce Baldwin, president of Abbotts Dairies. Baldwin assembled a group of local leaders to invest in Frazier. The company, called Cloverlay, sold 80 shares at $250 apiece. Frazier would receive $100 a week as a draw against his boxing earnings, which would be 50 percent of his purses; his training expenses would be paid from Cloverlay’s cut.
Frazier told The Inquirer in 1966 that he consulted with his wife and decided to sign the deal “because we think it is a swell thing.”
The syndicate bought a three-story building on North Broad Street, a former bowling alley and ballroom, and made it Frazier’s gym.
“I don’t think most people at the beginning thought that Joe was championship material necessarily, but they did know he was a crowd-pleasing fighter,” said boxing analyst Merchant, who said he bought one share for something to write about.
“It was like buying shares in Microsoft. ... I paid $250 and sold for about $2,000,” he said. Due to stock splits, an original $250 investment eventually would be worth more than $14,000. Cloverlay grew to nearly 1,000 shareholders.
‘FIGHT OF THE CENTURY’
Frazier had his first tough professional test against Oscar Bonavena in 1966. Frazier was 11-0 with 11 knockouts, but the tough Argentine knocked him down twice in Round 2. But Frazier survived and won a split decision. In 1967, he knocked out Tony Doyle in the first boxing event at the Spectrum in Philadelphia.
After Ali was suspended from the sport, Frazier fought Mathis in 1968 for what the New York State Athletic Commission called the world heavyweight championship. Mathis — in the first boxing event at the new Madison Square Garden — poked and danced to win first the half of the fight, as he’d outpointed Frazier when they were amateurs. But Frazier was unrelenting. In Round 11 he floored Mathis with a left hook, and the referee stopped the fight. Five fights later, in 1970, Frazier stopped Jimmy Ellis to become official world heavyweight champion.
But Ali loomed.
“He got in more than my head. He got in my mind, my heart, my body,” Frazier said of Ali in a documentary. “I’d go to bed at night, and I could see him — and we’d fight. ... I used to wake up the next morning, wet with sweat.”
That first Ali-Frazier bout was like worlds colliding. Never before had two undefeated heavyweight champions met. An estimated 300 million people worldwide watched. Ali dominated early rounds, but Frazier wobbled him with a hard left hook in Round 11 and knocked him down with one in Round 15, winning a unanimous decision.
Their rematch was less eventful, but in their third meeting, in Manila, neither man gave ground. They beat each other devastatingly. Frazier lost when he could not answer the bell for Round 15, but it was Ali who spent the night in the hospital.
Frazier for decades resented the way the public embraced Ali and held a grudge for decades over how Ali vilified him in the run-up to their first fight.
At the 30th anniversary of their first fight, with Ali’s health fading, the men hugged and made up. In a 2006 interview with The Inquirer, Frazier said: “I forgive him, and it’s up to the Lord now to do the rest of it. If I’ve done something wrong to you or said something wrong, I’m sorry. I hope he accepts that.”
THE LATER ROUNDS
Frazier had 11 children by at least four women. With Florence, he had daughters Jacqueline, Weatta, Jo-Netta, and Natasha, as well as his oldest, son Marvis, who went 19-2 fighting as a heavyweight. Marvis is a preacher who helped run the Frazier gym. Frazier and Florence divorced in 1985.
Frazier had daughter Renae and son Hector with another woman during his marriage. His other children are Joseph Rubin, Joseph Jordan, Brandon, and Derek.
After his boxing career, Frazier kept busy making guest appearances but was unable to capitalize on his name the way Ali and Foreman did. He took over the Frazier gym and became a coach and mentor to young boxers. Speaking to children about determination, he would say:
“Lots of times when I’ve done 41/2 miles and don’t want to go that other half, I say to myself: ‘Nobody would know but me.’ But brother, that’s the last guy I want to fool!”
2011 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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