By Paul Post
Forty years after defeating Muhammad Ali in “The Fight of the Century,” Smokin’ Joe Frazier remained a knockout both inside and outside the ring.
His March 8, 1971, decision over the previously undefeated Ali and their trilogy of heavyweight showdowns, has cemented his reputation forever as one of the greatest champions of all time.
Even before his recently disclosed serious illness that resulted in his death Nov. 7 at age 67, some Frazier-autographed items such as boxing gloves, trunks, photos and magazine covers commanded hundreds of dollars in recognition of his prominent role as a hero who provided many of the fight game’s most exciting moments.
However, Frazier proved to be a champion in other ways, too, by using his star power to raise money for charitable causes. Just weeks ago, he visited historic Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York where a special race and other activities were held in his honor, to remember the 40th anniversary of his stunning victory over Ali.
While there, Frazier did a private signing to benefit the Saratoga Springs Rotary Club Foundation that supports educational initiatives. His visit also included a public signing session at historic Saratoga Race Course, where hundreds of fans lined up to get his autograph.
It was quite apparent that his popularity hadn’t waned at all. Graciously, Frazier also took time out to talk about boxing and his place in it.
“Once you’re a champion you’re one of the greatest,” he said. “That’s the way I look at it.”
However, he also expressed concern about the sport whose popularity has declined considerably in recent years.
“We need more guys in there who really want to fight, guys who love the game,” he said. “Today they spell love M-O-N-E-Y. I lived the game right.”
Former longtime heavyweight contender and Canadian champion George Chuvalo lost to Frazier in a four-round technical knockout on July 19, 1967.
“Joe was more relentless than anybody I ever fought,” he said. “He was always in forward gear. He kept coming at you. He coupled his aggressiveness with speed. Bang, bang, bang! He just kept going.
“I got hit with a left hook in the third round,” he recalled. “It closed it right away. I looked like a one-eyed Marty Feldman.”
Frazier, 32-4-1 with 27 knockouts to his credit, held the heavyweight title from Feb. 16, 1970, when he beat Jimmy Ellis, to Jan. 22, 1973, when George Foreman KO’d him.
“Sometimes a fighter has your number,” Chuvalo said. “George Foreman had Joe’s number. Other than that, he proved himself several times. He’s got my vote any way.”
Renowned boxing historian Burt Sugar ranks Frazier No. 8 on his list of all-time greatest heavyweight champs.
“You cannot say Ali without saying Frazier, which is not a bad way to be remembered, part of a pair,” he said.
Sugar was ringside at Madison Square Garden the night “Smokin’ Joe” defeated Ali in the first of their three epic battles.
“It was probably the greatest spectacle in the history of American sporting events,” he said. “Limousines, letting off people, were lined up all the way from the Garden to 125th St. As they got out, they were wearing full-length white sable coats – the men! Women had on hot pants. It was a fashion parade. Everyone was there, Diana Ross, Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra. Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey was in the third balcony. That’s how hard tickets were to come by.
“It was just an event.”
Forty years ago, LIFE magazine was one of the most widely read periodicals in America. On March 5, 1971, the magazine previewed the first Ali-Frazier showdown with a cover article: “Battle of the Champs: Backstage with Ali and Frazier.”
Two weeks later, the March 19 issue featured nine pages of color photos along with lively narrative by the great writer Norman Mailer, who summed things up this way: “One fighter invented the psychology of the body. The other man was a war machine.” The magazine cover showed Frazier delivering one of his vicious left hooks with Ali covering his face, his back to the ropes. The photo was taken by none other than Frank Sinatra. Today, these now rare magazines are just some of the prized collectibles from that momentous occasion.
More than just a fight, the match also symbolized the deep political and social rifts in America over the Vietnam War and civil rights.
Ali had been stripped of his crown after refusing to enter the service. He also was high-profile spokesman for black America’s quest for social justice.
Without seeking it, Frazier became a blue-collar hero, representing the establishment.
To Frazier’s long-held and deep-seated dislike, Ali called him an “Uncle Tom.”
“I think Joe still doesn’t understand a lot of what Ali did,” Sugar said. “He still holds a dislike today, 40 years later.”
Frazier’s powerful left hook came from doing farm chores with his sharecropper father, who had lost his left arm before Frazier was born. Joe would lift and handle tools that his father couldn’t, Sugar said.
From these humble South Carolina beginnings, Frazier later moved to Philadelphia where he learned how to fight and quickly developed into one of the top amateur boxers in the nation in the early 1960s. He didn’t lose until he ran into Buster Mathis, who decisioned him in the 1964 Olympic trials. But Mathis suffered a hand injury and Frazier replaced him at the Summer Games in Tokyo and came home with a gold medal.
Ali felt the full brunt of Frazier’s ferocious left hook in the 15th round of their long-awaited first showdown.
“He’d been hurt badly in the 11th round,” Sugar said. “But he kept clowning so I didn’t know if Joe hurt him or not.”
In one of the most famous fight scenes ever, Frazier caught his arch-rival again in the crucial last round, sending him to the canvas for only the third time in his career.
Frazier remembers exactly what flashed through his mind as Ali went down.
“Don’t wake him up again,” he said, smiling.
Ali got up, but there was no question about the outcome as the decision was read.
The two fighters were polar opposites, in both fighting style and personality. Ali, loud and brash, craved the limelight.
“Me, I get in and out of places so quiet people don’t even know I’m there,” Frazier told LIFE. “I got nothing to hide, but I’ve got a right to be a private man. I’m not going to let anybody change me. I know just who I am. Before I was heavyweight champion of the world, I was the same man.
“I move around the city, I don’t have no trouble with police, with businessmen, with people who want my autograph.”
Reportedly, Frazier was so accommodating to autograph seekers that he would sometimes stay several hours for an appearance scheduled to last just one. When aides tried to keep fans at bay, Frazier would tell them to relax and let people get up close.
A big entourage was never his style.
“When I get out there to do my roadwork, I’m alone,” Frazier told LIFE. “When I get in the ring, I’m alone. I go where I’ve got to go -– I’m always alone.”
Whenever and wherever his name is mentioned, however, it’s right up there with boxing’s all-time best. He was inducted to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., in 1990.
“Greatness is meeting and beating other greats,” Sugar said. “In any picture of great heavyweight champions, Joe Frazier would be sitting front row center.”
Paul Post is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.