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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

RIP Joe Frazier

As a Kid, I really did not know about rugby. I followed Baseball, American football and Boxing. It's hard to believe now but back in the late 60's and through the 70's, Boxing was a huge sport in the US. I admired the courage of boxers and their skill.

When I was 10 years old and in fourth grade, boxing fans were treated to undefeated fighters going for the heavyweight title. Muhammad Ali had been the undefeated champ before he was stripped of his title as a fallout from refusing to be drafted during the Vietnam War. With Ali in exile, the power brokers of boxing held a sort of tournament, which was eventually won by Joe Frazier.

Unlike the photogenic, quotable Ali, Joe Frazier never seemed to have things easy- in life and in the ring. Even as an amateur, he was runner up to Buster Mathis for a spot on the 1964 Olympic Boxing Team. When Mathis got injured, Frazier shocked everybody by winning a Gold Medal at the Tokyo Olympics. Unlike Ali, Frazier bore in, willing to take incredible punishment in the process. Interestingly enough, Frazier never should have been allowed to box professionally, as he was effectively blind in one eye. What he would do during fight physicals was when he was asked to read the eye chart, he would read the chart with his good eye, but then when they asked him to use the other eye, Frazier would use the opposite hand to cover the same eye. Nobody ever caught on to it. Because he was fighting with one eye, Frazier constantly moved to his left. His left hook was simply a thing of beauty. I added tape from the 15th round from "The Fight of the Century", as Ali-Frazier I was called at the time. At around 30 seconds into the clip, Frazier floors Ali with a wicked left hook. This was an epic fight with both fighters needing to get medical treatment after all was said and done.

What was sad and unfair were the very personal insults Ali would call Frazier: Ugly, a gorilla, and most hateful of all, an "Uncle Tom", proclaiming himself as the hope for African Americans, whereas Frazier was the fighter that catered to the white establishment. It was a grossly unfair accusation on a very proud man. Frazier was nobody's fool. What made Ali's trash talk even more vile was the fact that when Ali was in exile and unable to make a living boxing, Frazier had actually given money to Ali. There was a very, very real hatred by Frazier over the years against Ali.

That hatred was on full view on a very steamy night in Manilla in October of 1975, Ali-Frazier III was the closest thing that I have ever seen to Mortal Combat. The visceral level of violence in this fight was both compelling and terrible. It was a play in 3 acts, where Ali toyed with Frazier for the first rounds, in the middle rounds, Frazier inflicted horrific punishment to Ali. In the end, Frazier was essentially fighting blind. Even in his fatigued and debilitated state, Ali was teeing off on Frazier's head. Eddie Futch, Frazier's longtime trainer, refused to send his fighter out for the 14th round. Ali barely had enough strength to lift his hand in triumph before collapsing in the ring.

You can make a pretty good argument that neither fighter was ever the same again after the mauling they inflicted upon each other. Both suffered neurological effects that afflicted them after they retired. Frazier, ever gracious with fans, was always somewhat bitter that Ali got more of the headlines and the love from sports fans. When he was diagnosed with the liver cancer that would kill him, Smokin' Joe was able to soften his stance towards his foe somewhat.

In this day and age, it's hard to believe that a man at 205 pounds could be a heavyweight champ. They say that you cannot measure heart in an athlete. Joe Frazier may not have had the speed, size or reach of other boxers-but his huge heart and formidable left hook had him at the top of the boxing world during a period in time where boxing was front page news in the US.

RIP Smokin' Joe.

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