from the Mike Casey Archives...
 
When the one-eyed man was king: Is it time to re-assess Joe Frazierís greatness?

By Mike Casey

When the news was confirmed from the horseís mouth that Smokiní Joe Frazier had fought through his magnificent professional career while legally blind in one eye, the reaction of all and sundry was intriguing. There was the initial rush of sympathy and admiration and the promises of many to study their all-time heavyweight choices and maybe bump Joe up a couple of notches.

Then there was nothing. In the articles and essays on Joe Frazier I have seen since, there has been little if any mention of the considerable handicap under which Joe laboured in punching his way to the top and remaining a major league player for some seven or eight years. Let us remember that he did so in the company of some of the toughest heavyweights of any era.

Along with Rocky Marciano, Joe Frazier is the guy who plays havoc with the minds of traditionalists and revisionists alike whenever they shuffle their all-time rankings. In general, Joe and Rocky are generally found bouncing around anywhere between tenth and fifteenth in the current climate, as cases are made for other fighters who suddenly become cool or trendy. Sonny Liston has been re-classified as the flawless and invincible killer he never was. Jersey Joe Walcott, a fine old ring mechanic who finally had his hour in the sun after dropping the ball several times, is lately revered as a brilliant old ring mechanic, albeit just plain old when he appears in Marcianoís portfolio.

The Frazier career is something of a conundrum to many fans and historians, who can never quite seem to make up their minds as to when it ended in earnest.

If we are judging Frazier at his very best, a given courtesy when we are ranking fighters on an all-time basis, then where do we draw our cut-off line?

We do not judge Ezzard Charles on the basis of all those late career losses when he was simply going through the motions. We do not judge Dempsey on his defeats to Tunney or Joe Louis on his sad exit against Marciano. We close the book when we reach those chapters, because we know for a certain fact that what we are reading is not the true story.

Now here is a question for you: Should we close the book on the prime-time Joe Frazier after his epic victory over Muhammad Ali in the so-called Fight of the Century in 1971? No, I donít believe we should, even though Joe was never that level of fighter again.

Over the following four years, Frazier was still good enough to take Ali close to deathís door and virtually slaughter Jerry Quarry at his very best. Joe also defeated Jimmy Ellis for the second time and saw off a surprisingly lively and ambitious Joe Bugner. Those results must count in assessing Frazierís career and therefore so should the results that preceded them.

 

Extensive 

Before taking a more extensive look at Joe Frazierís career, let us pick up the thread after the Fight of the Century. The first meeting of Frazier and Ali was everything that a great fight should be, a genuine classic of the ages. For me, it has always surpassed the Thriller in Manila for excitement and sustained quality. It was a brutal, punishing encounter of power and skill, which exacted a great toll on both fighters. Neither Joe nor Muhammad ever quite hit those giddy heights again. Ali came out of the fray with a badly swollen jaw, while Frazier passed blood for some time afterwards.

Joe was a revelation that night, beautifully trained and conditioned at 205lbs, a fighter in his prime. He was never much more than a flat out slugger with a powerful left hook, but he maximised his physical advantages to become a formidable adversary. Frazier had some smarts too within his own simple and brutal textbook. He was often effective with a jab, which he really should have employed more often. He was also one of the few fighters who didnít stand for Aliís spoiling tactics, contemptuously slamming aside Muhammadís probing jab with bear-like swipes.

But while Ali was still a hungry and driven fighter after 1971, Frazier had the bearing of a man who had climbed the highest mountain and didnít know what to do next. He took ten months to come back and rumours were rife about the extent of his fitness and his ambition. Were there doubts in Joeís own mind? His rising weight and his choice of opponents certainly reflected a suddenly tentative and wavering champion.

When he defended his title against the lowly Terry Daniels at the Rivergate Auditorium in New Orleans in January 1972, Joeís weight had soared to a fleshy 215lbs and his old sharpness and bite had gone. Far from smoking, he Ďhuffed and puffedí in the words of ringside reporter Bert Sugar.

Daniels fought gamely before being overwhelmed in the fourth round and was quickly forgotten as the post-fight chatter focused on Frazier and how much he had left in the tank. The mismatch had all the air of a testimonial last hurrah, and Joe still couldnít shake Muhammad Ali from his tail. Always looking to strike the first psychological blow, Ali had returned to action much earlier and had already knocked off Jimmy Ellis, Buster Mathis and Jurgen Blin.

Four months after the Daniels debacle, Frazier came into the ring at 217lbs for his next defence against the equally unsung Ron Stander. In Stander, Joe met a fiercely proud bull of a man who grabbed his unlikely shot at glory with both hands. There were times when the hometown boy fought the champion on even terms in the early going, although Frazierís vicious hooks fairly butchered Standerís face. Ron was all in by the end of the fifth round and one wondered if Joe Frazierís career was nearing the same state.

 

Remember 

Youth is a wonderful thing in its clarity and vibrancy. Everything you love is larger than life and remembered in the finest detail. I was eighteen when Joe Frazier defended his championship against the young and still largely mysterious George Foreman at Kingston, Jamaica, in 1973. I can still recall that fight with crystal vividness, as well as every morsel of trivia leading up to it. I loved Frazierís fighting attitude and style and I believed he would beat Foreman until I saw a simple picture in the newspaper. Joe was posing beside a punching bag, surrounded by two Playboy bunnies. He was smiling and at ease, and his once magnificently honed body was similarly loose and relaxed. He had taken to believing that half measures would get the job done. And I say truthfully that I knew from that silly picture that Foreman would take him.

Big George was a hard man to assess at that formative stage in his career. He was undefeated in twenty-eight fights, but his only notable achievements were two wins over former light-heavyweight contender Gregorio Peralta and a third round pummelling of the oft-pummelled George Chuvalo.

Foreman had feasted mainly on easy pickings and would continue to do so for the rest of his long career. Most fighters built on weak stilts can only get away with that approach for so long, the most glaring example of the time being California puncher, Mac Foster. But we would learn that Big George was very much an exception to the rule. Phenomenally strong and a born ring killer, there would be few times in Foremanís career when he would need any more than the brutal basics he was blessed with.

Like a giant scything his way through a cornfield, Big George knocked the 214lb Frazier down six times and crushed him in two rounds. It was a shattering result for Joe, yet oddly curative in the long term. Even before the terrible impact began to fade, Frazier was a serious fighter again. He had regained his hunger and ambition.

 

Tough 

Joe Frazierís fire and determination to succeed was borne out a tough early life. Joe might have been forgiven for thinking that winning a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics of 1964 would ease his path and separate him from the millions of other strugglers. He discovered very quickly that this was not the case on returning to his hometown of Philadelphia. Having injured his left hand in Tokyo, Frazierís paychecks were stopped when he was unable to resume his job at a local slaughterhouse.

But fate was about to lend a hand. A shrewd old bird called Yank Durham had been spying on the raw youngster from the time he walked into a Philly gym for no other purpose than to lose some weight. Yank noted Joeís crudeness but was greatly impressed by his fortitude. Durham recalled how Frazier took some lusty beatings from the other youngsters in the gym, yet never backed down or gave up. Yank began to coach Joe and patiently polish the rough diamond.

What struck me at the time was how fast Frazier learned and progressed. He seemed to positively zip through the professional ranks on his march to the championship, brushing aside the inconveniences he suffered with the disdain of a man swatting a fly.

Turning professional in August 1965, Joe won his first five fight in a combined total of eight rounds and was quickly ready for tougher opposition. He was matched sensibly against a string of tough journeymen like Dick Wipperman, Charley Polite, Chuck Leslie and the jaded but still tricky Billy Daniels. Joe continued to build on his knockout streak until he met his first world ranked opponent in the crude but dangerous Oscar ĎRingoí Bonavena in September 1966. It was Frazierís tenth professional fight and a calculated gamble that very nearly backfired. He was decked twice in a frantic opening round and showed his inexperience as he jumped up quickly from each knockdown and threw himself back into the eye of the storm. Yet Joe showed the fighting qualities of a future champion as he weathered Bonavenaís initial rush to win a well deserved decision.

Within three years of that harsh lesson, Frazier was a champion and a worthy successor to the exiled Ali.

Joe was the very antithesis of The Greatest in style, yet every bit as captivating. It was in the hot and sticky summer of 1969 that Frazier reached maturity as a formidable fighting man with a brutal seventh round stoppage of Jerry Quarry. The epic first round of that no-holds-barred classic will forever linger in the memories of those fortunate enough to be there. Without respite, Joe and Jerry bulled and slugged each other in mid-ring, neither man backing off. Then Quarry wilted. He couldnít live with Frazierís ferocious pace and was pounded to defeat after seven rounds.

 

Closing in 

Frazierís confidence was now soaring and he resembled a rampant bulldozer when he clashed with his WBA counterpart Jimmy Ellis at the Garden in early 1970. Jimmy actually fared well in the early going, getting Joeís attention with the kind of sneaky, well-timed punches that had Oscar Bonavena rocking and reeling all over the ring three years before. But Frazier simply marched straight through Ellis, turning the tide dramatically with a booming left hook late in the third round and finishing his man in the fourth.

It was the unforgettable trilogy with Ali that cemented Joeís place in the history books. Frazierís work rate in their first chapter was exceptional, sometime frightening in its pure intensity. He fought like a man whose very life depended on the result and the price he paid for his monumental effort was costly and enduring. It loosened vital components in his engine room and sucked him dry of motivation.

ĎMotivationí is a key word in judging Joe Frazier over the long haul of a somewhat divided career, which roared at full throttle for six breakneck years and then spluttered and stalled before revving up again for the final lap. Frazier, quite simply, needed a fight on his hands every time he answered the bell. He needed to look across the ring at his opponent and feel that he was genuinely threatened. He didnít get that feeling against Terry Daniels or Ron Stander. Disastrously, he didnít get it against George Foreman.

It fell to Ali to put the ice and fire back into Frazierís soul when they hooked up again in 1974. Muhammad got his revenge, but Frazier in defeat regained his sense of purpose.

Later that year, Joe faced a revitalised Jerry Quarry in a long awaited rematch. Quarry soon found himself on the end of a merciless beating from Frazier, who reached back and rediscovered all his old fire and fury to pound his man to defeat in five rounds.

The road was clear for the final chapter against Ali in Manila on October 1 1975. A thriller it certainly was, almost gruesomely so. For while the Fight of the Century had been a war with a near perfect sheen, the Thriller in Manila was its primitive and ugly sister: frayed and flawed because the gladiators were close to fighting from memory by that time, but pulsating throughout and almost morbidly gripping. Many people have told me that their memories of that awesome struggle are like snatches from a jumbled dream. There was Ali, as pained and as desperate as he had ever been in a hellish tenth round, touching the pearly gates with one hand and later admitting that he had never felt so close to dying. And there was Frazier, battered and exhausted, his face a horrible mess, pleading in vain with trainer Eddie Futch to let him out for the fifteenth and final round. The compassionate Futch would not do so. It was over in every sense.

 

Glorious 

For me, Joe Frazier was a glorious fighter, for reasons as simple as his unrelenting style. We knew exactly what he brought to the table during his exciting rise to power, and they were the qualities we love to see in champions. In Joeís case, the simple ingredients comprised of pride, determination, an insatiable will to win and a wrecking ball of a left hook as the icing on top. Yet the chinks in Smokiní Joeís armour were no less appealing. Perfect fighters, if there are such things, captivate us for a while but begin to annoy us in the long run. Imperfect fighters win our affection and stay in our hearts.

I believe that Joe Frazier, with his one good eye, deserves a place among the ten greatest heavyweights. Joe did not possess the genuine knockout power of Dempsey, Louis or Marciano. He was never as chillingly destructive at his peak as the prime Foreman or Tyson.

Joe was too deliberate and predictable in his approach to be compared favourably with the greats of similar styles. Too often, he attacked in a straight line, although very formidably so. He learned to bob and weave well but still presented too inviting a target. Dempsey, by contrast, was all springs and coils, all intelligent movement. Jack came at his opponents from many different angles and was more guarded and cunning against bigger men who had the potential to chop him down if he misjudged his charge. He circled Willard from a distance for what seemed like an eternity before making his move with terrifying impact. Frazier walked straight into Foreman and we know what happened.

However, I feel that other criticisms of Joe are harsh and unfair. A more recent theory has been that his punch resistance was suspect. But would any heavyweight in history have stood up to the blows that Foreman was dishing out in Kingston? I would suggest that not even Ali would have survived the attack of the prime Foreman in anything other than the bizarre and almost surreal circumstances of Zaire.

Let us not forget also that while we try to discount the last fights of a boxer who has slipped over the hill, they can still linger in our memory and blur our judgement. Frazier took a second pounding from Foreman in upstate New York in 1976, but Joe was almost parodying himself by that time. He shaved his head before that one and called himself the black Kojak. Uncharacteristically, he was trading on gimmicks, and the high trunks and fleshy body had become a sadly familiar sight. Joe never did regain his peak fitness after the first Ali fight.

Yes, Frazier was hurt by lesser fighters during his career, but let us not venture down that tired old road. Dempsey, Louis and all the great champions suffered similar blips while still learning the ropes.

Frazierís career was short and sweet compared to most others, but it was loaded with genuine quality. The general level of his competition was superior to that of Holmes, Lennox Lewis and, ironically, Foreman. Joe defeated arguably the greatest heavyweight of them all in his finest hour and never dodged a deserving opponent. We can argue forever about who would beat who, but Frazier surely deserves his place among the elite on his record of achievement alone.

Historians, including yours truly, love to tell the tale of Harry Greb and how he fought the latter part of his career whilst wearing a glass eye attached to the eye muscles by sheep tendons. Perhaps we should start singing Joe Frazierís praises in similar fashion.

Only Joe himself knows just how much he could see out of his Ďlegally blindí eye, but any handicap of that nature is some handicap. In spite of it all, he won the richest prize in sport and irresistibly ploughed his way through a generation of golden heavyweights.

Not bad going at all for a flat out slugger with only one peeper.

    


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