Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Smokin' Joe Frazier: 1944-2011


The first head coach of the Chicago Bears that I can remember was a man named Neill Armstrong. I knew he wasn't the same man, Neil Armstrong, who was the first human to walk on the Moon. This Neill Armstrong couldn't exactly get the Bears off the ground, and was replaced by the man who did, Mike Ditka.

The first manager of the New York Mets that I can remember was a man named Joe Frazier. He played briefly in the majors in the 1950s, and managed the Mets for a little over a year before being fired, in favor of Joe Torre. Not that Torre was able to do much more with the Mets, this being the era of owner Joan Payson dying, and letting her daughter Lorinda de Roulet run the team, and her letter board chairman M. Donald Grant run the team... into the ground, driving Shea Stadium's attendance down so much it was called Grant's Tomb.

Frazier never managed in the majors again, although he was successful as a minor league manager at Tidewater (the Mets' farm team at Norfolk, Virginia) before reaching Flushing Meadow, and at Louisville in the St. Louis Cardinals organization afterward.

Joe Frazier the manager died on February 15 of this year. He was 88.

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Of course, unless you're a New York baseball fan (and even if you are), you might not remember that Joe Frazier. Most people, when they hear the name, think of the boxer.

Joseph William Frazier was born on January 12, 1944 in Beaufort, South Carolina, and grew up on a farm there. An uncle noticed his stocky build and said the boy would grow up to be another Joe Louis. Well, when he did become a fighter, he didn't have Louis' style, but he may have exceeded him in punching power.

Much like early 20th Century baseball pitcher Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown, a freak injury actually helped Joe in sports. He badly cut his arm in a fall while being chased by a farm animal, and when it healed, medicine being what it was for a black child in the 1950s South, he could never fully straighten it. But this game him perhaps the most famous left hook in the history of boxing -- in real life, anyway. (Joe made a cameo appearance in the first Rocky, where he accused Apollo Creed of ducking him. Begging the question, in the universe where the Rocky films took place, did Muhammad Ali exist? And if so, why wasn't he champion in 1975? And if Creed didn't beat Ali or Frazier for the title, who did he beat -- George Foreman?)

At 15, he got out of the South, and trained as a boxer in Philadelphia, which already had a reputation as a fighter-producing town. He won the Olympic Gold Medal in 1964, and when Muhammad Ali was stripped of the title for refusing to be drafted, Joe was among the contenders for it. He ended up beating them all: Oscar Bonavena, Eddie Machen, George Chuvalo, Buster Mathis (March 4, 1968, the first heavyweight fight at what was then called "the new Madison Square Garden") to win one of the available heavyweight titles, Bonavena again, Jerry Quarry, and finally Jimmy Ellis, at the Garden on February 16, 1970, to make himself the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

Well, officially undisputed. Unofficially, there were a lot of people who said he wouldn't be the REAL champion until he beat Ali. And Ali was in his "Louisville Lip" glory, taunting Frazier, calling him an "Uncle Tom" because, though also black, he was "the white man's champion." Frazier couldn't figure it out: "I'm blacker than he is!" Ali also called Frazier "ugly," to contrast with himself being "pretty." I guess it never occurred to Ali that physical beauty has nothing to do with fighting skill.

Tuning up by beating light-heavyweight champion Bob Foster, on March 8, 1971, Frazier was ready for what was billed as "The Fight of the Century," "The Super Fight," or just "The Fight" was held at the Garden. Two undefeated heavyweight champions walked into the ring.

Supposedly, Ali told Frazier, in the ring, that he was God. Personally, I find this out of character for Ali, who was still in the Nation of Islam at that point. Maybe he just got carried away, as he often did.

Smokin' Joe was ready: "God, you in the wrong place tonight! I'm takin' names and kickin' ass!"

Ali held on as long as he could, but in the 15th and final round, the 45th and final minute, Frazier unleashed a left hook that brought down the man who had called himself "The Greatest of All Time." Frazier was, by a close but unanimous decision, declared the winner.

Frazier had proved his point. And he continued to do so, knocking out 2 more fighters, before January 22, 1973. On the same day that former President Lyndon Johnson died and the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that abortion bans were unconstitutional, Frazier got into the ring with the man who had succeeded him as Olympic champion, undefeated 1968 Gold Medalist George Foreman, just as Frazier had succeeded 1960 champion Ali (then still named Cassius Clay).

Frazier was 29-0, with only 5 of his fights having gone the distance. But this one was no contest -- the other way. Howard Cosell broadcast it for a tape-delayed edition of ABCs Wide World of Sports, and, in the 1st round, observing the fight -- knowing that Ali would have to fight one of these guys, maybe both (and it would be both), Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, could be heard at ringside yelling, "Frazier's hurt!"

Cosell was telling the viewers what Dundee had said, but before he could get the words out, Big George knocked Smokin' Joe down, and Cosell, stunned, yelled, "Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!" It is boxing's "The Giants win the Pennant!" Foreman knocked Frazier down 6 times in 2 rounds before referee Arthur Mercante stopped it.

Frazier bounced back. He went to London to fight local favorite Joe Bugner and beat him, and then a 2nd fight with Ali was held at the Garden on January 28, 1974. This one was scheduled for 12 rounds and went the distance, but Ali won a decision. Ali then went on to knock Foreman out in the shocking "Rumble In the Jungle" in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), to retake the title, in spite of the fact that Foreman had destroyed the only 2 men who had yet beaten Ali, Frazier and Ken Norton.

Foreman was sure he could beat Ali and take the title back. He tuned up by winning rematches against Quarry and Ellis, and then, on October 1, 1975, it was Ali-Frazier III, "The Thrilla in Manila."

It wasn't quite as hyped as the first one in 1971, but, like that one, it lived up to the hype. It may have been the greatest prizefight ever. "I hit him with punches that would have brought down buildings," Frazier said. Ali said the 10th round was as close to death as he'd ever been. But in the 13th -- this one, like the 1st but unlike the 2nd, was scheduled for 15 -- Ali unleashed a furious right that sent Frazier's mouthpiece flying out of the ring. The 13th and 14th rounds may have been the harshed punishment Ali had ever dished out -- because, unlike Foreman and Floyd Patterson, Frazier wouldn't go down.

And, unlike Sonny Liston, Frazier wouldn't quit. He was bleeding badly -- possibly internally. His eyes were nearly swollen shut. Trainer Eddie Futch was afraid for Frazier's life. "The fight's over, Joe," he said. Frazier refused to give in, having more courage than sense: "I want him, boss." Futch said no: "It's all over. No one will forget what you did here today." And Futch told referee Carlos Padilla to stop it, which he did.

Ali was completely exhausted. He was telling Dundee to cut the gloves off. "Frazier quit just before I did," he told the press afterward. "I didn't think I could fight any more." However cruel Ali had been in his taunts before the fight, afterward, he was completely magnanimous to the man he had beaten, literally beaten, but not quite defeated: "Joe Frazier, I'll tell the world right now, brings out the best in me. I'm gonna tell ya, that's one helluva man, and God bless him."

It's become a cliche that a big part of both men never left the ring at the Areneta Coliseum in Quezon City, outside Manila. Frazier only fought twice more, and both times, it was a mistake: A rematch with Foreman at the Nassau Coliseum in 1976 led to a 5th-round knockout, and in 1981, at age 37, he fought Floyd "Jumbo" Cummings for 10 rounds. It was rather charitably called a draw, and this time, retiring with a record of 32-4-1, he went back to what he'd been doing since the 2nd Foreman fight, training boxers at a gym in North Philadelphia.

One of the boxers he trained was his son, Marvis Frazier. The two of them posed for a Sports Illustrated cover, which asked if Marvis was a "CHIP OFF THE OLD CHAMP?" He wasn't: In 1983, he got into the ring with champion Larry Holmes, and Holmes crushed him in the 1st round. Like his father, Marvis was not one to give up easily, but Holmes could be seen punching, and turning to the referee, saying, "I don't want to fight him anymore!" Marvis was not knocked down, but the referee stopped it. He was also knocked out in the 1st round by Mike Tyson in 1986. He fought 3 more times before retiring with a 19-2 record, and entered ministry.

Over Joe's objections, his daughter Jackie Frazier-Lyde started pro boxing at age 38, and seemed to be good at it. Inevitably, a fight had to be set up with Laila Ali, and on June 8, 2001, "Ali-Frazier IV" was held at Turning Stone Casino outside Syracuse, New York. Both women went in undefeated. Laila won by a close decision, and it remains Jackie's only loss.

Joe, like Ali and Foreman, turned out to be a natural at TV commercials. He did one where he and a female backing group sang about Miller Lite -- or, as it was then officially known, Lite Beer From Miller -- but later switched brands and did one for Anheuser-Busch Natural Light. He (reluctantly?) did a commercial for the paper industry which showed him in a ring covered with the material used to make paper bags, showing that "Joe Frazier can't fight his way out of a paper bag."

Frazier made millions of dollars through fighting and real estate, but lost all his money in other deals, finally having to sell Joe Frazier's Gym in 2009. His relationship with Ali remained contentious, with a number of reconciliations, but only Joe knew for sure whether that fight was truly over.

Having already been diagnosed with diabetes, Joe was diagnosed with liver cancer in September. Although this is the same disease that knocked out Mickey Mantle, as far as I know Joe never had a problem with alcohol. He died yesterday at age 67.

"The world has lost a great champion," Ali said in a written statement. "I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration."

There are now 9 living men who have been undisputed heavyweight champions of the world:

* Muhammad Ali, on and off between 1964 and 1978.
* George Foreman, 1973-74 and again 1994-95.
* Larry Holmes, 1978-85.
* Michael Spinks, 1985-86 (brother of Leon Spinks, whose brief hold of the belt in '78 for beating Ali after just 8 pro fights was disputed).
* Mike Tyson, 1986-90 and 1995-96.
* James "Buster" Douglas, 1990.
* Evander Holyfield, on and off between 1990 and 1999.
* Riddick Bowe, 1992-93.
* Lennox Lewis, 1997-2004.

Currently, Wladimir Klitschko holds every belt except that of the WBC, which is held by his brother Vitali, and the giant Ukrainians have sworn that they will never fight each other. Personally, I think the best thing that can happen to boxing is to have a unified, undisputed heavyweight champion. And if the Klitschkos will not fight each other, perhaps they should talk to Venus and Serena Williams.

As for Frazier... The fight's over, Joe. And now you have a title that no man can take away.

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