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Joe Frazier deserves to be recognized as one of the all-time greats


He will be forever linked in history with his archrival. And he will forever be associated with one type of punch. Ali-Frazier 1 pic: blak4rest.com

But in reality, Joe Frazier had many great fights, not just those against Muhammad Ali. And he could do a lot more in a boxing ring than just throw a devastating left hook.

Joe Frazier was as tough and indomitable as any fighter that ever lived. And the marvel of his career is that he turned what should have been major disadvantages to his advantage. 

He was not big, either in stature or weight. So he developed his style of pressuring his opponent, bobbing and weaving under their punches and getting in close where his short arms became an advantage rather than a hindrance.

When he won a portion of the heavyweight title in 1968, he faced Buster Mathis, who stood 4 inches taller and outweighed him by about 40 pounds.

Frazier went to work with countless body shots, like a woodsman chopping at the base of a tree, and by the 11th round, Mathis appeared to be the shorter fighter because he could no longer stand up straight.  At that point, Frazier sent in a left hook to the head and he could've stepped back and yelled "Timber,” as Mathis fell straight to the mat.



That left hook resulted in almost every one of Frazier's 27 KO's in his 32 fights. But it was the body shots that set it up. My own original research shows that during his heavyweight reign,28% of Frazier's punches were body shots, more than any other heavyweight champion ever.  

If not for that, it would have been easy for Frazier's opponents to keep their right hand up high throughout a fight to block that famous left hook. But those debilitating body punches would eventually bring down the guard of every opponent. And Frazier was usually in such great shape that he could just keep chopping away over 15 rounds and never run out of gas.

It makes you wonder how a man could have that much resolve, to train so hard before the fight, and then, once the fight was underway, to keep coming forward, and to keep throwing punches in bunches, refusing to let either his opponent or fatigue slow him down.

Frazier told me a few years back, it's just something he was born with. "It's something that's been there all your lifetime from the day you were plucked out of your momma. It's been there."

When he was a stocky 8 year-old kid growing up in a small town in South Carolina, Frazier says some of his classmates would pay him to walk with them at the final bell so that bullies wouldn't mess with them. After one of his uncles commented that Frazier had the build to be another Joe Louis, Frazier took a burlap sack and filled it with corncobs, rags, tree moss and a brick, and began wailing away on the makeshift heavy bag hung from an oak tree.  And he made it a point to work out on that bag pretty much every day for the next half-dozen years.

"My people were just hard workers every day. I knew I had to do something to make them proud," Frazier told me.  

But many of them laughed when the youngster announced that he would be the heavyweight champion of the world one day.  

The serious training began only after he moved to Philly. "I moved here, I had aunts and uncles here, and sisters. And there was a PAL (Police Athletic League gym), and I wanted to go to this PAL. And it was really a great help for any young man or young woman who wanted to further their professional career in boxing and singing.”

Frazier, it turned out, became a professional at both. But even though he was very proud of his band, Joe Frazier and the Knockouts, they never achieved critical success. When I asked whether any of his records ever became hits, he joked, "I had a lot of hit records, but they did nothing but sit on the shelf."  


His boxing, on the other hand, was top-shelf.

The springboard for his pro success came from winning an Olympic Gold Medal. Ironically, Frazier had lost in the Olympic trials to Buster Mathis, the same Buster Mathis he later chopped down for the heavyweight title. But an injury kept Mathis from competing in the Olympics. Ironically, he broke a knuckle while landing a punch on Frazier's hard head during an exhibition bout. And Frazier, as the alternate, ended up going to the Olympics and winning the gold.

The reason Frazier ended up fighting Mathis again as a pro is that he was left out of the 8-man elimination tournament to find a successor for Ali, who had been stripped of his title for refusing induction into the Army. Frazier's win over Mathis earned him recognition as champion in several states, including Pennsylvania, while others recognized Jimmy Ellis, who won the WBA tournament. Frazier put an end to any debate about the championship by dominating Ellis and knocking him out in the 5th round in 1970.

But he could never truly be considered the Champ without beating Ali, which he did in 1971, when Muhammad was allowed to resume his career. Billed as the "Fight of the Century,” the first-ever meeting of two undefeated champions, it produced Frazier's most memorable ring moment when he knocked Ali down with that patented left hook in the 15th round.  



That hook, he once told me, also dates back to his days in South Carolina, when his mother sent him to feed their hog.  Instead of just feeding the hog, which was inside its pen, the young Frazier began taunting the animal, making all sorts of snorting sounds and gyrations.  

"And he came right through the slabs of the pen, and ran after me, tried to hit me with his tusks and bite me, and I fell.  Knocked this (points to his left elbow) out of place. Mom and them didn't have the money to break it and fix it, so it grew like this. I had the strongest left hook in the world. I didn't have to bend it back, all I had to do is throw it. It's already in a bended place."

Though it's not nearly as famous as the Ali knockdown, the best example of Frazier's left hook force may have been delivered years earlier against George Chuvalo, who was never knocked down in his entire career. Frazier hit Chuvalo with a hook in their fight in 1967 that broke Chuvalo's eye socket, causing his eye to drop down behind his cheekbone. Momentarily blinded, Chuvalo stumbled around the ring as the referee jumped in and  stopped the fight, awarding Frazier the TKO victory.

But even before the Chuvalo fight, Frazier showed his very best asset in the ring, even more amazing than his left hook. Joe's tremendous willpower and determination allowed him to somehow come back from being knocked down twice in the second round against Oscar Bonavena in 1966. Dazed as he was, if Frazier had gone down one more time, the fight would've been stopped. But he survived, recuperated and rallied to win.  


Even in losing the heavyweight championship to George Foreman  in 1973, Frazier displayed tremendous heart. Foreman, the only other opponent beside Bonavena to ever knock Frazier down, sent Joe to the canvas six times in the first two rounds. Frazier not only continued to get up, but to charge forward, until finally the referee mercifully stopped him from absorbing any more punishment.

Now, it is liver cancer that will punish him no more. And we will not again see a heavyweight quite like him, 5-11, 205 pounds with a heart twice that size.  

Billy Vargus is an Emmy Award Winner for Best Sports Anchor for 2008 and 2009. (Mid-Atlantic region, covering all of Pennsylvania, South Jersey and Delaware.) Bill has been a TV sports anchor in the Philadelphia area for 18 years with the last 12 coming at Fox 29. He’s also had stops at Channel 10, Channel 12, plus at other television markets around the country.He has also served as the pre-game host for all Seventy-Sixers games in the past and also has acted in films, TV shows and commercials.

Billy V can be contacted at billv@philly2philly.com

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Ali-Frazier pic: blak4rest.com