Frazier loses last fight

Joe Frazier poses in front of photos from the old days
Joe Frazier poses in front of photos from the old days (FILE PHOTO)
Posted: November 08, 2011

JOE FRAZIER, widely regarded as the best fighter in Philadelphia boxing history and one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all time, lost his battle with liver cancer when he passed away yesterday in home hospice care. He was 67.

To the end of his well-lived life, Smokin' Joe competed with the other fighter with whom he is destined to be linked forever, and his opponent in three of the most revered boxing matches of all time: Muhammad Ali.

Those who know Frazier well remember how he always made a point of saying he would outlive Ali, now 69, in what was tantamount to the unfought 15th round of the celebrated rubber match, the "Thrilla in Manila," on Oct. 1, 1975, in Quezon City, Philippines. Frazier, both his eyes nearly swollen shut, was not allowed to come out for the final round by trainer Eddie Futch, who told him, "Son, no one will forget what you did here today."

And no one did - not then, not now, probably not for as long as two determined, courageous men test their wills and their skills in a roped-off swatch of canvas while wearing padded gloves.

In the other corner, an utterly exhausted and equally battered Ali, whose corner also was considering stopping the fight, could barely get off his stool to celebrate the victory that might have been for much more than the mere heavyweight championship of the world.

Author and Ali biographer Thomas Hauser wrote that Ali and Frazier were "fighting for the heavyweight championship of each other."

Frazier won the first of those three legendary matchups, the "Fight of the Century" on March 8, 1971, in Madison Square Garden, punctuating his 15-round, unanimous-decision victory by flooring Ali with a leaping left hook.

"That was, and still is, the biggest sporting event of all time," Joe Hand Sr., one of the original investors in Cloverlay, the corporation that financially backed Frazier for a time after he won the heavyweight gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, said of what likely still is the most anticipated boxing match of all time.

"There's nothing that compares to the drama and excitement of that night. The Daily News had at least a column, and sometimes an entire page, on the fight beginning 21 days out. Burt Lancaster, the movie star, was a color announcer for the telecast. Frank Sinatra was taking photos for Life magazine. To get a ringside seat - and there were no exceptions - you had to wear formal attire, a tuxedo or evening gown.

"There was never a doubt in any of [the Cloverlay investors'] minds that Joe would win. For him to lose, you'd have had to stab him or shoot him . . . all that anger he'd built up from Ali's insults. Ali might have been the best fighter, but Joe had the biggest heart."

That anger, which bubbled up so often after he had thrown his last famous left hook, didn't begin to subside until recently, when Frazier's hard feelings about Ali calling him "ignorant," "a gorilla" and an "Uncle Tom" softened. When Ali, visibly shaking with Parkinson's syndrome, lit the lamp to open the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Frazier said, "I wish I could have pushed him in."

"He got in more than my head," Frazier once said of Ali. "He got in my mind, my heart, my body. 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. I'd fight him all night long."

In retribution for what Ali had called him, Frazier continued to call him by his birth name, Cassius Clay, and "The Butterfly," a derisive take on Ali's "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" mantra.

Jack Hirsch, the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, recalls an event he attended with Ali last year in which Frazier, who was born in Beaufort, S.C., but moved to Philadelphia when he was 15, confided what was already an open secret.

"Joe always made a point that he was going to outlive Ali," Hirsch said, when informed of the declining nature of Frazier's health. "But I guess it's like the 'Thrilla in Manila.' Joe fought his heart out, but came out one round short."

Reactions poured in after news of Frazier's death spread:

* Said world champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. via Twitter: "RIP Smokin Joe. My thoughts and prayers go out to the Frazier family. We lost an all time great tonight." Mayweather also tweeted that he will pay for the funeral expenses.

* From Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins: "A Philadelphia legend and a great champion he was! R.I.P. Smoking' Joe."

* Bernard Hopkins: "I'm glad I got to see him in the last couple of months. At the end of the day, I respect the man. I believe at the end of his life, he was fighting to get that respect."

* Mayor Nutter, through spokesman Mark McDonald, said: "Joe Frazier was the quintessential Philadelphia boxer. He represented the heart and soul of boxing in our great city. In the ring and in the neighborhoods, he carried himself with dignity and courage. He was a true ambassador for our city. I enjoyed him as a fighter and I really liked him as a person. The entire city mourns his passing and we keep him and his family in our prayers."

And boxing promoter Bob Arum told the Associated Press, "Joe Frazier should be remembered as one of the greatest fighters of all time and a real man. He's a guy that stood up for himself. He didn't compromise and always gave 100 percent in the ring. There was never a fight in the ring where Joe didn't give 100 percent."

Frazier, who was divorced from his wife, Florence, is survived by his longtime girlfriend, Denise Mims, and 11 children. Among them is son Marvis, who was a heavyweight contender in the 1980s, and daughter Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, a Municipal Court judge and a former fighter who lost to Ali's daugher, Laila, in 2001.

Funeral arrangements are pending, the family said in a statement.

"We thank you for your prayers for our father and vast outpouring of love and support," the family said. "Respectfully, we request time to grieve privately as a family. Our father's home going celebration will be announced as soon as possible. Thank you for your understanding."

Frazier posted a 32-4-1 record as a professional, with 27 knockout victories. He captured his world title, at least the one recognized by the State of New York, by stopping Buster Mathis in 11 rounds on March 4, 1968, in Madison Square Garden, when Ali was prevented from fighting for 3 1/2 years for refusing induction into the Army on religious grounds. He then added the more widely recognized WBA championship by knocking out Jimmy Ellis on Feb. 16, 1970, but it wasn't until his epic first fight with Ali that Frazier joined the ranks of boxing's immortals. He was a 1990 charter member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

In recent years Frazier's health has worsened as the result of diabetes, chronic back pain and the loss of a toe in a lawnmower accident. But no matter the obstacles he's had to overcome, he has remained the same man who went to hell and back three times with Ali and kept punching.

"If you talk about heart, determination, courage, all that good stuff, you're talking about Joe Frazier," said Holmes, a onetime Frazier sparring partner.

It was a signature left hook, and his confidence in it, that made the smallish Frazier so feared, and so good. Upon arriving at the arena for a Nov. 18, 1970, bout with light-heavyweight champ Bob Foster, Smokin' Joe told the limousine driver, "Driver, keep the motor running. I'll be right back. This won't take long."

Frazier then took out Foster in two rounds.

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