Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Joe Frazier Was A Symbol of The Sport And Heavyweight Championship

By Rich Mancuso

We will now mourn the passing of 67-year old Joe Frazier, the former heavyweight champion known more for his name being associated with Muhammad Ali. He lost his battle to liver cancer Monday evening at a hospice in Philadelphia two days after it was known that Frazier had been gravely ill. Boxing has lost a legend from a time when the heavyweight championship was a symbol for the sport.

He was a proud part of a heavyweight era with Ali, and George Foreman. Boxing at the time was the sport of kings, known more for the heavyweight division and the lack of alphabet soup organizations that dominate the sport today. Frazier always said he was proud to be a part of that history, and would never criticize a sport that has changed the complexion and life of so many young people.

And though Frazier could never get close to Ali, there still was that mutual respect offered after their three famed fights, the most know being the “Fight of The Century” at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1971 when he put Ali down in the 15th round. The tributes for Frazier would continue many years later because he would appear at various championship fights and functions. Those who were in his company would always say, “Smokin’ Joe” was a gentleman out of the ring as good as a fighter he was in the ring.

Said Ali in the “The Ultimate Book of Boxing Lists” written by Bert Sugar and Teddy Atlas, “Joe Frazier hit hard…Brawler…Just kept coming, moving forward, no matter how hard you hit him…Could take a punch.” He would lose two more fights against Ali, including the Don King promoted “Thrilla in Manila” bout that epitomized then why the sport was considered the sport of kings.

Many say, as does Sugar, that it is impossible to not link Frazier and Ali together when discussing some of the memorable rivalries in the sport. “The hyphen between their two names as permanent as the memories they gave,” says Sugar. Ali called Frazier a “gorilla in Manila” and Frazier said, “I didn’t want to knock him out. I wanted to take his heart out.”

Frazier defended the heavyweight title four times before George Foreman knocked him out six times in the first two rounds in 1973, the last time he would be a heavyweight champion. “He was a giant and meant so much for boxing,” said former middleweight champion Iran “The Blade” Barkley who as a youngster growing up in the Bronx New York admired Frazier as the two developed a bond over the years.

But Frazier was never put in the category with Ali, Joe Louis, or Rocky Marciano as one of the greatest heavyweights to lace up the gloves. Perhaps it had to do with Ali being in the forefront, even though that 15th round at the Garden in 1971 will always be memorable. His 41 rounds fought with Ali were classics. Ali was quicker but Frazier could throw a punch, something that Ali remembered.

Ali would lose that first fight of his career at the Garden, but would continue to mock Frazier with insults before their next two fights. The words seemed to bother Frazier but he came to realize years later that it was what also made Muhammad Ali. Frazier, 32-4-1, would always fight guys bigger and stronger but that never seemed to hinder his courage and desire to make a mark on heavyweight championship history.

“I can’t go nowhere where it is not mentioned,” said Frazier recently in an interview about the fight with Ali at the Garden. “That was the greatest thing that happened in my life.” He was a former 164 pound Olympic Gold Medalist and became a pro with a reputation.

Years later Frazier would get his son Marvis involved in the sport. He could never duplicate any achievements of his dad and was encouraged by his champion father. Said Marvis a few years ago, “I can only do what my dad taught me but there will only be one Joe Frazier.”

His boxing gym in a downtown area of Philadelphia was a way for Frazier to identify with young people and his theory of contributing to the sport that also kept him involved around the fighters, trainers, and promoters. The gym, funded by organizations and out of the pocket money from Frazier, continued to struggle to keep the doors open in the past few years.

But the respect gained by Frazier over the years enabled friends and people from the boxing community to keep his dream alive in making a difference for young people that wanted to achieve a boxing career. “They deserve the opportunity just like I did,” he would say about the young people that surrounded him a few years ago.

And when the boxing world mourns Joe Frazier the next few days, they will always talk about Ali. However his charisma, most of all generalship out of the ring was as good as it was in the ring. There was never a bad thing to say about a man who never turned down an interview or denied the fans an autograph. “He was,” said Barkley, “a champion to all of us.”

Yes, boxing has lost a champion. We did not know about his illness and as of September when he was last seen at ringside in Las Vegas at the Floyd Mayweather-Victor Ortiz fight, reportedly Frazier had been diagnosed and the only people who knew were family. He would not complain and kept business to himself.

The best business though was what Frazier did in the ring, maybe with the best left hook at the time. Perhaps the world would not be talking about Joe Frazier and his passing had the fights with Ali never happened. However that would have not mattered. You had to know Joe Frazier to appreciate what he meant to family, friends, and for the sport of boxing.

Rest in Peace champ!

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