Joe Frazier: The Heavyweight Who Would Be King

By Clarence George on February 16, 2013
Joe Frazier: The Heavyweight Who Would Be King
As Ellis trainer Angelo Dundee put it after the bout: “Frazier was too strong for Jimmy."

“I’m going to do things to him that nobody else ever did.” And Smokin’ Joe was as good as his word. Not that Ellis did badly…

The Son of Man goes forth to war,
A golden crown to gain;
His blood-red banner streams afar –
Who follows in his train?

Forty-three years ago today—February 16, 1970—Smokin’ Joe Frazier became Heavyweight Champion of the World. I won’t use “undisputed” in deference to those fans who refused to recognize Frazier’s right to the title—what was then, but is no longer, the accolade born to the purple—unless and until he defeated the man they considered the rightful champ, Muhammad Ali. Frazier accommodated the skeptics a little more than a year later, flooring the once-and-future king via the sweetest left hook in the history of the heavyweight division and its championship bouts. Frazier won by unanimous decision, handing Ali the first loss of his career.

I had my heroes growing up on the mean streets of New York (in the ‘60s and ‘70s, all of New York City’s streets were mean). An eclectic mix, including Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, my father…and Smokin’ Joe Frazier. I liked the way he looked—built low to the ground, compact, powerful. I vividly recall a photo my gym teacher had pinned up in his office. Smokin’ Joe in a baby-blue wifebeater—unsculpted muscles massive, bulging, glistening with sweat—pounding a heavy bag so hard the impact reverberated up the chain, through the ceiling and walls, a wave across the floor that smashed into the soles of spectators’ feet. Or so my boyish imagination led me to believe. And, sweet Mother of God, the way he fought. A bull, small and black, relentless, inexorable, seemingly unstoppable, surer than death and taxes.

Most of my friends rooted for Ali. But not me. One of the greatest heavyweights of all time? No question. Superior to Frazier? He was. But Ali didn’t lead with his head…Smokin’ Joe did. And that was enough for me.

Frazier certainly earned his shot at the title that had been stripped from Ali for refusing induction into the Army. From his first pro fight on August 16, 1965 to June 23, 1969, the date of his last fight before facing Jimmy Ellis for the championship, Smokin’ Joe (32-4-1, 27 KOs) won 24 consecutive matches, 21 by stoppage. He defeated, among others, Oscar Bonavena, Eddie Machen, Doug Jones, George Chuvalo, and Buster Mathis. In his bout with Mathis, Frazier was awarded the vacant NYSAC championship, recognized as the world title by Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, as well as New York. In the June ‘69 bout, eight months before the universally recognized title match, Frazier retired Jerry Quarry in the seventh round of Ring‘s Fight of the Year. Smokin’ Joe wouldn’t know defeat until losing his crown (and almost his head) to George Foreman in early 1973. He drew only once, in his last fight. A winter match, appropriately enough, against Floyd Cummings in ‘81 (his first fight since a loss to Foreman in ‘76).

Although not regarded as one of the greats, Ellis (40-12-1, 24 KOs) was considerably more than a jumped-up journeyman. A pro from 1961 to 1975, Ellis defeated former two-time champ Floyd Patterson and Leotis Martin, as well as Bonavena and Quarry. He won the vacant WBA title in his bout with Quarry, defending it successfully in his bout with Patterson. Ellis’ next fight was 17 months later against Frazier at Madison Square Garden for the World Heavyweight Championship. Matches had indeed been arranged over that period, including one with Henry Cooper, but they never materialized.

“I’m going to do things to him that nobody else ever did.” And Smokin’ Joe was as good as his word. Not that Ellis did badly. He in fact won the first round. But as Ellis trainer Angelo Dundee put it: “Frazier was too strong for Jimmy.” Decked twice in the fourth, Ellis was nowhere near as aware as had been Willie Pastrano when the ringside doctor asked if he knew where he was: “You’re damn right I know where I am! I’m in Madison Square Garden getting the shit kicked out of me!” Dundee wouldn’t let Ellis continue, the first time he’d been stopped in what was then a nine-year career, and Frazier was awarded the win and the Heavyweight Championship of the World via fifth-round TKO.

Unlike Frazier—who had refused to participate in the WBA eliminators in protest of that sanctioning body stripping Ali of his belt with the same disdain-filled vigor with which the military used to break the sabers of disgraced officers—Ellis did so with both gusto and success. But Smokin’ Joe’s rectitude was tempered by wisdom, and he unhesitatingly accepted the WBA belt (as well as the vacant WBC title) following his defeat of erstwhile titlist Ellis.

Ellis would have been well advised to have followed Pastrano’s example, who hung up the gloves after losing his light heavyweight championship to Jose Torres. Ellis, who’ll turn 73 on February 24, is lost to the boxer’s bane of dementia pugilistica.

Frazier died of liver cancer on November 7, 2011 (exactly one year to the day before the loss of fellow great Carmen Basilio), at age 67.

I’m not a fan of Floyd Mayweather Jr., but I will not forget that it was he who paid the impoverished Frazier’s funeral expenses. Say what you will of Mayweather, at least he knows how to hold in homage the ashes of his fathers.

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Joe Frazier vs Jimmy Ellis I - Feb. 16, 1970 - Entire fight - Rounds 1 - 5 & Interviews

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  1. JIMMY DORSEY 09:44am, 10/13/2016

    Quarry defeated 8 ranked heavyweights, thats not easy in any division, most Champions did not beat 8 ranked contenders during their reign, Frazier had (10).

  2. Clarence George 06:17pm, 02/20/2013

    I, too, have Tunney below Dempsey.  But they’re both on the list, which is more than I can say of Foreman and Holmes.

  3. Eric 03:37pm, 02/20/2013

    Frazier seems to always be around the bottom of the top 10 in those all-time heavyweight lists. It seems George Foreman has steadily climbed up the rankings after his second retirement. Often I would see Foreman ranked just below Frazier on many of those lists before his comeback. Like Tunney, Foreman would always seem to be ranked lower than a fighter he conquered not once but twice. I know Foreman wasn’t a fancy dan and he certainly didn’t have Ali-like foot speed or hand speed, but his strength and power were just as valuable a physical attribute as Ali’s boxing skills. Recently, Foreman has been slowly creeping up many of those all-time lists and will often be just outside the top 5 and ranked higher than Frazier on many of them. I certainly would rank Foreman higher on my list than Larry Holmes whose name I often see just outside the top 5.

  4. Clarence George 02:46pm, 02/20/2013

    Now that you mention it, Eric, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Frazier ranked quite that high (he’s number eight on my own list).

  5. Eric 02:14pm, 02/20/2013

    Frazier peaked on the night of the first Ali fight and was never the same again. You could almost say the same about Roberto Duran after his first fight with Ray Leonard, even though Duran would rebound and win two more world titles and fight for nearly two more decades. Even an overweight glorified club fighter Ron Stander proved more competitive than he should have been before Frazier chopped him up in the fourth. Would things have been different if Foreman had to face a pre-Ali version of Frazier circa ‘68-71 and weighing 205lbs?  One can only wonder how high Frazier would be ranked on the list of all-time greatest heavyweights had he retired after the first Ali fight.  I’m thinking Frazier would consistently be ranked among the top 3-5 heavyweights if he had retired after the first Ali fight.

  6. The Fight Film Collector 10:29am, 02/20/2013

    You bet!

  7. Clarence George 10:10am, 02/20/2013

    We’re kindred spirits, FFC!

  8. The Fight Film Collector 09:52am, 02/20/2013

    I couldn’t agree more, Clarence, and always felt that Foreman never fought the real Joe Frazier.  If you look at the curves of their respective careers, it’s clear that the two dates they met were Foreman’s best nights and Frazier’s worst no matter who they would have fought.  Foreman was never better than in Jamaica, and his post championship career was in full swing for the rematch in Nassau.  Frazier, on the other hand, was in poor health in 73 and his rematch with Foreman in 76 was at the very end.  And, coming off Manila, was there a braver man than Joe to step into the ring that night?  Seldom mentioned is the Nassau fight was also a real contest.

  9. Clarence George 02:42pm, 02/19/2013

    So glad you like it, FFC.

    You know, I never held Foreman in high regard; Frazier was an incomparably better boxer.  Foreman beat him because Frazier led with his head.  He could do that against just about anyone, including Ali, but not against someone of Foreman’s phenomenal hitting power.

    As for Cosell—jackass.  He and Ali seemed to bring out the worst in each other—and their worst was about as bad as it gets.

  10. The Fight Film Collector 02:25pm, 02/19/2013

    Thank you for writing this piece, Clarence.  Any appreciation of Joe is welcome in my book, and as many of us know, long overdue.  Few champions swept the division of their respective eras like Joe did the heavyweights from 66-71.  It was a cruel fate that his loss to Foreman in 73 wiped away so much respect he had earned up through first Ali fight.  ABC ran the Foreman fight over and over, with Cosell’s hysterical over the top fight call burning into the minds of fans until it became a sick joke.  Unlike Patterson who was destroyed by Liston, Joe didn’t have a full decade to fill out his career, though his few remaining fights were brilliant.

  11. Eric 01:39pm, 02/18/2013

    Chuvalo certainly fought just about anybody who was anybody in the Sixties and early Seventies. I heard Henry Cooper ducked George Chuvalo and with good reason, George would have been just too strong and powerful for Cooper. Bugner was just coming on the scene when George was winding down but a fight against Bugner would have been more realistic and more competitive than Chuvalo facing Cooper. Can’t think of many fighters Chuvalo didn’t face in the Sixties and Seventies. The list of Chuvalo’s opponents are impressive and include Ali, Patterson, Bonavena, Cleveland Wiliams, Ernie Terrell, Quarry, Frazier, Foreman, etc.

  12. the thresher 06:31am, 02/18/2013

    Chuvalo is in incredible shape and health. He is a Jake LaMotta when it comes to absorbing punishment without showing later effects.

    Also a very nice man as was Joe who would always have time for a fan, but could not suffer the suits very well—-but then who really can?

  13. Eric 01:12pm, 02/17/2013

    Chuvalo is a very class act from what I’ve seen of him in interviews. He has to be just as immensely strong mentally, emotionally, and spiritually outside of the ring as he was physically strong in the ring given the events in his life. Have watched the documentary “The Last Round” which features an up close look at the Chuvalo-Ali championship bout many times, great film. If Chuvalo would have met his opponents in a bar or an alley without boxing gloves he might have gone undefeated.

  14. Clarence George 01:02pm, 02/17/2013

    Huge Chuvalo fan.  I think he was one of the toughest—not only of his era, but of all time.  Glad he’s alive and well, despite massive personal tragedies.

  15. Eric 12:55pm, 02/17/2013

    Quarry’s loss to George Chuvalo was another one of those disappointing moments in Quarry’s erratic career. Quarry was totally dominating the fight and for it to end like it did was just weird to say the least. Always wanted to see a Quarry vs Bonavena matchup. Sounds like an exciting matchup but you never know because on paper the Chuvalo vs. Bonavena matchup sounded like it would have been a classic but it was a relatively boring fight. I think Bonavena actually deserved the nod over Frazier in their first fight.

  16. nicolas 12:51pm, 02/17/2013

    Eric, I feel that you are right about Jerry Quarry, had be been healthy he probably would have won against Ellis, as Clarence said, he certainly had a far greater heavyweight career than did Ellis. On the first Frazier Bonavena fight, Frazier was lucky that they did not score the fight on the 10 point must system. The guy who gave Frazier the nod 5-4, would have had Joe losing the fight by a point instead, and I think that Oscar would have won a split decision. Having watched the fight though, I though Frazier won 7 of the 10 rounds.  Clarence, I don’t think that people underestimate Jerry Quarry, I think many realize that he have been one of the greatest heavyweight fighters never to hold a world title. Larry Holmes back in about 1980, bemoaning the opposition that he had, said that if Jerry Quarry were fighting today, Quarry would be the number one contender for his crown. Perhaps also just being a nice guy, George Foreman said that Quarry was the one fighter he would have been very nervous to fight. I think Muhammad Ali said that if the cruiserweight division had been around during Quarry’s height, that Quarry would have been that champion. I also wonder if Quarry had fought Norton just before his second fight with Frazier, if he might not have won that fight. I think that Quarry kind of caught Floyd Patterson late in his career, some feel that on both fights Patterson should have got the decision. I guess Quarry’s greatest problem was that he cut so easily. Against both Frazier, Ali, and even that fight with Norton. Note, he was never even decked by any of them.

  17. Clarence George 10:50am, 02/17/2013

    Quarry tends to be very underrated.  Not only was he more impressive than Ellis, I think he was among the best heavyweights of his era.  His great misfortune was coming along at the same time as Ali and Frazier, who of course completely outclassed him.  If not for those two greats, could Quarry have been champ?  I think so.

  18. Eric 08:41am, 02/17/2013

    Frazier made it look easy against Ellis. Suprisingly, Ellis had done better against Bonavena than Frazier, while Frazier certainly had a better matchup with Quarry than did Ellis. If Quarry hadn’t had the back injury I say he defeats Ellis. That Quarry would lose to Jimmy Ellis was always a great disappointment and a fight Jerry should’ve and could’ve won had he entered it completely healthy. Frazier handled Ellis like the blown up middleweight he was, and just brutalized Ellis with his superior “natural size,” strength, and punching power. Personally, I always consider Joe to have been the champion from 1968-1973. Ellis laying claim to the title of world champ is like the Larry Holmes period when people like Mike Weaver,  Tony Tubbs, and Pinklon Thomas would claim the title while everyone identified Holmes as the TRUE heavyweight champion. The only opponent Frazier fought who might have been shorter than him or was at a reach disadvantage that I can think of would’ve been the celebrated trial horse Scrapiron Johnson.

  19. Clarence George 03:54pm, 02/16/2013

    Quarry also had DP.  He died broke in his early 50s.  Awful.

  20. nicolas 02:54pm, 02/16/2013

    I remember listening to this fight on radio live when it happened. Yes, we still sometimes had fights you could listen to on radio back then, though I think I can count on one hand how many I have heard, about 4, with the last one being Michael Nunn Marlon Starling. I remember they were asking some reporters who they thought would win the fight, some though Ellis might. Also, many felt at the time that Frazier really should have been fighting Floyd Patterson, as many felt that Patterson had won, despite Harold Valens 9-6 judgement in favor of Ellis. Sad to hear about Ellis though, this is the first time I have heard it.

  21. Clarence George 02:25pm, 02/16/2013

    Thanks so much, Mike.

    Frazier is—going back decades—among my favorites.  Always preferred him to Ali.  Heresy, I know, but it is what it is.

  22. Mike Schmidt 01:58pm, 02/16/2013

    Great article—who couldn’t like that sheer bob and weave big left hook fighter of Joe Frazier—what a fun fighter to watch—he gave you what he was—good old-fashioned work bang for your buck—again, great article

  23. Clarence George 01:50pm, 02/16/2013

    Thanks, Tex, for your good post and kind words.

  24. Tex Hassler 01:12pm, 02/16/2013

    Just about every one Joe Frazier fought was taller and had a longer reach. Joe quickly took that away from just about all of them and beat them. Joe knew how to take the fight to the inside. Frazier-Ali number one was one of the very greatest fights of any weight class. I saw Joe in the gym in Houston in about 1969. He was at his peak and some fighter. Thanks for a truly great article about an equally great fighter. Rest in peace Mr. Frazier!

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