Joseph William Frazier, better known as ‘Smokin’ Joe,’ is one of the fighters who always gets mentioned while talking about the greatest American boxers of all time. Thanks to his strength, fiery fighting style, durability, and vicious left hand, Frazier left his mark in the sport, beating several legendary boxers of all time. Frazier had an exceptional boxing career as he bagged sensational records of 32 wins, four losses, and a draw, with an 85% knockout percentage.
Turning His Life Around
Frazier had a tragic time before he started boxing. A 15-year-old Frazier moved from his hometown, South Carolina, to New York, where his elder brother worked. However, he couldn’t find a job, so he started stealing cars and selling them to junkyards in Brooklyn to earn his bread and butter.
As a kid, he idolized one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time, Joe Louis. To become a boxer, he moved to Philadelphia and found work at a slaughterhouse. He would regularly punch sides of beef in a refrigerated room. In 1961, Frazier started boxing, and his raw talent caught the eye of trainer Yank Durham. Durham polished his skills and turned him into a formidable opponent with a ferocious left hook.
During his amateur career, Frazier lost only to Buster Mathis during the US Olympic trials for the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. However, luck paved the way for Frazier as Mathis was ruled out of the prestigious competition due to an injury, allowing Smokin’ Joe to compete for his nation. Frazier repaid the faith and won a Gold medal at the Olympics. A year later, he turned pro, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Champion from 1970 to 1973
Frazier remained the world heavyweight champion for three years, from 1970 to 1973. In the first round of his professional debut, Frazier knocked out Woody Goss with a technical knockout. There was no stopping him after that as he won three more fights that year, and all by knockout. In his second bout, he took on Mike Bruce, who knocked him out in the first round. However, Frazier somehow got up and beat him out in the first round. After that, he won several more matches before attempting to capture the crown.
At Madison Square Garden in February 1970, Frazier squared off against WBA Champion Jimmy Ellis. In the decisive fight in the WBA elimination tournament for Muhammad Ali’s vacant championship, Ellis had defeated Jerry Quarry. Ellis couldn’t bear Frazier’s strength and persistence. In the fifth round, his trainer, Angelo Dundee, refused to allow him to enter the ring for the fifth round after he suffered his first two career knockdowns in the fourth round, giving Frazier the victory through a technical knockout.
Bob Foster, the world light-heavyweight champion, faced off against Frazier for his first defense of the championship. By knocking down Foster twice in the second round, Frazier successfully defended his title. Foster could not escape the second knockdown after it was delivered by a crushing left hook.
Joe vs. Ali — The Legendary Rivalry
“The Fight of the Century” is renowned as one of the most iconic bouts in the history of boxing. Muhammad Ali, dubbed ‘The Greatest,’ crossed swords with Smokin Joe in March 1971 at the Madison Square Garden.
Ali lost his championship and was prohibited from boxing for three years in 1967 when he declined to enlist in the Army for the Vietnam War. Ali’s comeback put the two titans of the sport in motion, with Ali representing anti-establishment sentiment and Frazier representing the pro-war camp.
It lasted the entire 15 rounds and was a contest of strength and sheer force vs. quickness and agility. Both boxers remained neck-and-neck until the end of the 11th round, but late in the round Frazier got Ali with his signature left hook and nearly knocked him out, throwing him up against the ropes.
Ali survived the final four rounds of the battle despite Frazier being caught by numerous blows throughout that time. However, Frazier won after a unanimous decision. He became the first boxer to beat the arguably greatest boxer of all time — Muhammad Ali.
After two years, another legendary boxer, George Foreman, beat Frazier for the championship. Frazier fancied his luck again at the title in 1974 against Ali, but Ali beat him in a 12-round decision.
Frazier couldn’t stay back after losing two title bouts and ended up with a trilogy with Ali in another epic fight, dubbed Thrilla in Manila, in 1975.
‘Thrilla in Manila’
It was the third and last matchup between Frazier and his adversary, taking place in 1975 in the Philippines. Both boxers traded heavy strikes throughout the whole harsh, painful match. Ali was able to endure the punishment and carry the fight into the later rounds, which finally swung the fight in his favor. Frazier’s eyes were so swollen by the end of the 11th round that he could hardly see. Nevertheless, he persisted through three more rounds of torture, unmoved, when trainer Eddie Futch declared the fight over before the 15th round.
Last Fight with George Foreman and Retirement
After his title loss to Foreman, Frazier faced him again in 1976. In the buildup to the bout, Frazier exercised more restraint than usual and avoided colliding with powerful blows as he did in their previous battle. However, he was knocked off his feet by Foreman’s powerful left hook. Frazier made his retirement announcement soon after the fight.
In 1981, Frazier tried to make a return. He drew more than 10 rounds with the bulky Floyd “Jumbo” Cummings. It was a bloody conflict that received conflicting reactions. After that, he finally bid farewell to boxing.
Legacy that Lived On
Frazier’s autobiography — Smokin’ Joe: The Autobiography of a Heavyweight Champion of the World, Smokin’ Joe Frazier — was released in March 1996. Meanwhile, he also appeared on various episodes of the American television cartoon The Simpsons. Also, he appeared as himself in the iconic movie Rocky. In Philadelphia, he set up his gym. However, in mid-2009, Frazier listed the gym for sale. Before the gym was placed up for sale, Frazier and Peter Bouchard established the Smokin’ Joe Frazier Foundation to help troubled and underprivileged young people.
Late in September 2011, Frazier was diagnosed with a liver cancer diagnosis, which was the cause of his death as he passed away in November at the age of 67.
Frazier’s career serves as a lesson for everybody who struggles to make ends meet or accomplish their unique aspirations. He tried everything, from vehicle theft to working in a slaughterhouse, and faced challenges along the way, but he never allowed those challenges to get in the way of his dream of becoming a boxer.