Bronx, NY - 1971. I was a 12 year old parochial school student at St. Jerome's when the biggest fight of the century would take place between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. All week long, leading up to the fight, the debate raged on with fellow students as to who would win. I lobbied for Ali only because he was the better known fighter of the two. My classmate ( I can't recall his name) was convinced that Frazier was the better fighter. We made a $5 bet (a lot of money at the time) and I had to duck my school mate for the next couple of weeks after Joe Frazier put Ali on the canvas in the 15th round, leading to a unanimous decision. It would be the first of 3 classic fights between the two. Ali would win the next 2 but he would never face a fighter that had a bigger heart than Frazier. When he passed away late Monday night at the age of 67, Smokin' Joe Frazier was 1 of only 8 fighters to win an Olympic Gold Medal and a World Championship. He was part of a heavyweight era that will never be duplicated.
Fast forward to 1995. Atlantic City, New Jersey. Joe Frazier, long retired and a member of the International and World Boxing Hall of Fame, is sitting ringside of the Lennox Lewis, Shannon Briggs championship bout. Next to him, is one of the greatest middleweights of all time, Marvin Hagler. Both are watching the early rounds intensely. I am sitting to the right of Frazier. After the 3rd round, with Briggs trying to connect with wild punches, Frazier turns to Hagler and says, "we could knock both those guys out right now." Hagler smiles and nods in agreement.
Last year, Madison Square Garden celebrated the 40th Anniversary of the Ali/Frazier fight. Looking a little frail and walking with the help of a cane, Joe Frazier was given a standing ovation when introduced to the New York Knicks crowd. Speaking with him at halftime, he shook my hand as if he remembered me from that night in Atlantic City. He talked about life in Philadelphia, gave me his card and insisted I contact him if I ever came to his city. He did not look or sound like a guy who's life would be over in less than a year.
Joe Frazier was a man of the people. He didn't have the physical size of most of the heavyweights during his time. What he did have however, was a left hook that crushed opponents like a wrecking ball. His jab was non-existent but his constant bobbing and weaving style was relentless.
No fighter of his era had a bigger heart than "Smokin'" Joe Frazier. R.I.P!