By John F. McKenna (McJack)
When the news broke over the weekend that boxing great former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier was gravely ill with advanced liver cancer my heart sank and I went into a funk. Smokin’ Joe Frazier epitomized everything that you want to see in a great fighter. His trilogy with Muhammad Ali ranks up there with the very best in boxing history.
I had followed the career of Smokin’ Joe’s arch rival Muhammad Ali during the mid 1960’s and on into the 1970’s and I idolized him. I liked Frazier as a fighter, but circumstances later on changed my perception of this magnificent warrior.
When Frazier faced Ali for the 1st time on March 8, 1971 at Madison Square Garden Ali was attempting to win back the heavyweight crown that Frazier had won while Ali was in exile. Ali had been stripped of his title in 1967 for refusing to be inducted into the army during the height of the Vietnam War. There have been many huge buildups for heavyweight championship fights before but it is doubtful that any other title fight came close to matching the hype of Frazier – Ali 1.
The fight amazingly lived up to its hype. Although this writer was rooting tor Ali in a big way, I knew that his years of inactivity would hurt him. I watched the 1st fight of the Frazier – Ali trilogy on closed circuit TV on March 8, 1971 at the Cherry Hill Arena in Cherry Hill, NJ. Try as I might after watching the fight I could not give Ali more than four rounds. I was determined not to allow my personal preference to interfere with my honest assessment as to what was going on.
The 2nd Frazier – Ali fight was anti climatic with Ali winning a fairly one sided but lack luster unanimous decision, the magic just wasn’t there that night. The magic returned in a big way on October 1, 1975. Ali had become heavyweight champion again by knocking out Frazier’s destroyer George Foreman in the 8th round on October 30, 1974, so Frazer – Ali 3 had much more meaning.
No boxing fan who witnessed the “Thrilla in Manila” will ever forget the performance that the two fighters, supposedly past their primes, put on that night. In a way it was reminiscent of the St Valentines Day Massacre between Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake La Mota in 1951. Frazier bored in round after brutal round after getting off to his typical slow start. Frazier dug wicked left hooks into Ali’s body. Gradually Frazier’s body shots began to wear down Ali. At the beginning of the 7th round Ali taunted Frazier by saying: “Joe, they told me you were washed up.” Frazier responded with the classic line: “They lied to you Pretty Boy!”
Frazier dominated the middle rounds but began to tire in the 10th round. From that point on it was all Ali as Frazier’s eyes began to swell making it difficult for him to see. In the 13th and 14th rounds Frazier was literally fighting blind. After the 14th round Smokin’ Joe’s long time trainer Eddie Futch did what good trainers are supposed to do in such situations. Despite the protestations of Frazier he stopped the fight telling Joe “It’s all over. No one will ever forget what you did here tonight.”
As Frazier sat in his corner unable to see and unable to continue my perception of him changed in an instant. I was transformed by what I had seen. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. I glanced around at my friends watching the fight, who like me were all pulling for Ali, hoping they would not notice. They too were struck by this magnificent warrior who had given his all. It was the only time I had ever seen people weep after a boxing match.
Moments after the fight was stopped Ali collapsed from exhaustion in the center of the ring.
In retrospect it is unfortunate that anyone had to lose this fight. Frazier was more than a fighter and heavyweight champion of the world. There are numerous stories about Frazier from people who know him in the Philadelphia area. They relate instances in which he stopped his car to help people in distress. Way back when Muhammad Ali was in exile and had no money coming in Smokin’ Joe helped him numerous times financially and fought to have his boxing license reinstated.
The world wide boxing community bands together in offering its prayers for Joe Frazier and wishes him only the best.
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