World Heavyweight Champion 1970-1973
Joe Frazier was unfortunate in that his career spanned those of two of boxing’s greatest champions: Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. They were the only two men to get the better of him in a professional career lasting more than 10 years, and there was no disgrace in that. Frazier is rightly regarded as a fine champion in his own right. Had he fought in a less distinguished era, for example, between Tunney and Louis, or in the post-Marciano 1950s, he would almost certainly have been held in higher esteem.
Like his two great contemporaries, Frazier crowned a fine amateur career by taking Olympic gold. That was at Tokyo 1964, in the superheavy weight division. He wasn’t a first choice for the team, however. He was drafted in after Buster Mathis sustained an injury and was forced to withdraw. Mathis was the man who stood between Frazier and a perfect amateur record, having twice outpointed Srnokin’ Joe. But it was Frazier who went on to greater glory in the professional ranks, and that was to include an avenging win over Mathis in a crunch title showdown. More of that later.
Frazier was a man in a hurry after he turned professional in 1965. His first three fights lasted less than five rounds in total. In 1966 he fought no less than nine times, and only the rugged Argentinian Oscar Bonavena took him the distance. Six more opponents were dispatched in 1967, including Doug Jones and George Chuvalo.
Revenge on Mathis
No one could accuse Frazier of ducking the best heavyweights around at the time. There was the small matter of Muhammad Ali, of course. Frazier was undoubtedly punching his way to a showdown with Ali when the latter was stripped of his title. At that point, different boxing organisations staged their own competitions to find a successor, something which has become an all too familiar sight over the past 30 years. Frazier entered the WBC’s New York-based tournament, where he faced his old adversary Buster Mathis. He finally got his revenge on Mathis for those two defeats in their amateur days by stopping him in the 11th.
Frazier defended his WBC crown four times between June 1968 and June 1969, including a second points victory over Bonavena. Another of his victims was Jerry Quarry, the tough Irish-American who had lost to Jimmy Ellis for the WBA version of the title. The scene was set for a Frazier-Ellis showdown.
The two met at Madison Square Garden, on 16 February 1970. Ellis was a quality opponent and started well. But in the third Frazier hit back, connecting with some big shots. A round later he put Ellis down. Ellis’s corner saw the writing on the wall and threw in the towel. Boxing history is littered with light-heavyweights attempting to step up a division and try for the greatest prize. Bob Foster was the latest to do just that. Foster was a class act, and against a lesser heavyweight he may well have come out on top. But his best shots simply bounced off Frazier. The champion was brutally efficient, finishing the job inside two rounds.
Fight of the century
The world clamoured to see Frazier and Ali, the two undefeated titans of the ring, go head-to-head. They got their wish on 8 March 1971. Ali had had just two fights since regaining his licence the previous August. He couldn’t wait any longer to get into the ring with the man who had his title. The fans couldn’t either. New York was gripped by fight fever. Long gone were the days when promoters scoffed at the viability of two black heavyweights fighting for the crown. This was huge. Frazier and Ali shared $5 million for their 45 minutes’ work, making it the fight of the century in financial as well as boxing terms.
The contest had another interesting dimension. While Ali embraced black consciousness and renounced his ‘slave name’, Frazier studiously avoided the race issue. Ironically, he had known much greater hardship than Ali in his younger days. At the age of six he was helping his father eke out a living from farming. He had also been on the receiving end of considerable discrimination and bigotry. Yet when he became a top fighter and had money and a platform, unlike Ali, he wasn’t interested in pursuing political ends.
Born: Beaufort, South Carolina, USA. January 12 1944
Height: 6f3’ Weight: 205lbs.
World Heavyweight Champion: 1968-1973
Olympic gold medal 1964 (first for a USA Heavyweight)
Record: Won 32 (27 Kos) Lost 4 Drawn 1
Lay-off takes its toll
The two men fought out a bloody, bruising, attritional battle that went the full 15 rounds. Both men doled out and took heavy punishment. That Ali should find his man with stinging punches was no surprise. What was more remarkable was the fact that Ali’s long lay-off had affected his famed leg speed, and as a result Frazier landed a lot of blows too. And Frazier’s punches had a lot behind them. In round 11 he caught Ali with a terrific left hook to the jaw which nearly put him down. In the final round, Frazier connected with the same punch, an absolute peach. Ali looked down and gone, but miraculously managed to beat the count. It didn’t much matter. Seconds later the fight was over and all three judges had Frazier the clear winner.
After such a brutal contest, perhaps Frazier could be forgiven for taking things a little easier, and that is precisely what he did. In 1972 he fought just twice, against journeymen boxers Terry Daniels and Ron Stander. Both were dispatched inside four rounds. Meanwhile, Ali remained in the background, seething and taunting. Frazier ignored him. For his next defence he decided to take on a rising star by the name of George Foreman.
Easy first defence for Frazier
New York, June 24, 1968. Joe Frazier makes short work of Manuel Ramos in his first fight as WBC champion. Referee Art Mercante has seen enough in the second round, and ends the contest on a TKO. It would be nearly two years before Frazier would face WBA titleholder Jimmy Ellis for the undisputed crown.