He was public enemy #1 in the eyes of Muhammad Ali‘s legion of fans. Even Ali couldn’t help himself but to poke Joe Frazier when they met three times for the heavyweight title in boxing.
No matter what you thought of Joe Frazier, the man was a champion in his own right and way, and one of the best in an era where boxing became must-see television.
Smokin’ Joe, as the world affectionately called him, passed away Monday evening at home in Philadelphia. As giant as a man he was, it wasn’t a punch that knocked him out for the final count. Nor was it Ali or George Foreman.
It was liver cancer.
Joe was essentially born a fighter. Growing up in Beaufort, South Carolina, he fought to find a better life for himself. After moving up north to live with his older brother, did Frazier started to take up boxing and mold himself into the blue-collar pugilist that wouldn’t back down to anyone.
It was 1981 or 1982, I can’t recall, when my family drove out family to Des Moines, so he and a friend would trek over to Vets Auditorium to watch Muhammad Ali box. On the TV, there were old clips of the three “Fight of the Century” bouts between Ali and Frazier. I remember how amused I was when Ali and Frazier got into one of their most famous scrums in the ABC-TV studio, as Howard Cosell looked in astonishment.
Growing up, the impression I got was that Frazier was a bad guy. He was Sonny Liston-level of a bad guy. But my assumptions withered away when I got to watch more of Smokin’ Joe and learn more about the boxer. He never had it easy. Nor did he want it easy. He wasn’t the showman Ali was or what Foreman became after leaving the ring.
Joe was his own man. Prideful and feared, he gave back to boxing the only way he knew how, giving others a chance to learn how to box.
In death, he will be known as the foil to Ali and a complicated man to understand, but Joe wasn’t that hard to understand. Graceful, receptive to fans and aspiring boxers, Frazier never forgot his boxing roots. He lived it every day until this Monday evening.
Boxing could have not lost a better man and a great champion.
Muhammad Ali lost his best rival.