Philadelphia boxing legend Joe Frazier dies

Don Steinberg | 11/8/2011, 9:23 p.m.
Photo courtesy of allposters.com

Joe Frazier, the son of a South Carolina sharecropper who punched meat in a Philadelphia slaughterhouse before Rocky, won Olympic gold, and beat an undefeated Muhammad Ali to become one of the all-time heavyweight greats, died on Monday, his family said in a statement. He was 67.

Frazier, whose liver cancer was diagnosed about a month ago, spent his last days living under hospice care. Mr. Frazier, known as “Smokin’ Joe,” was small for a heavyweight, just under 6 feet tall, but compensated with a relentless attack in the ring, bobbing and weaving as if his upper body were on a tightly coiled spring, constantly moving forward, and throwing more punches than most heavyweights.

Fans could watch Frazier fight for minutes at a time and not see him take one step back.

“There were fights when he didn’t step backward. He took very few backward steps in his career,” recalled Larry Merchant, the HBO boxing analyst, who was a Philadelphia newspaperman during Frazier’s early years. “What made him good was not so much his punching power as his willingness to keep coming and walking through the fire, his toughness and grit — and willingness to train so he could take the kind of punishment a fighter takes in order to get to his opponent.”

Frazier’s signature weapon was a destructive left hook, which he used to win his first title in 1968 and floor Ali in their first meeting in 1971. He developed his powerful left as a young child, growing up without electricity or plumbing in rural Beaufort, S.C. His father had lost his left arm in a shooting over a mistress, and young Joe became his father’s left arm.

“When I was a boy, I used to pull a big cross saw with my dad. He’d use his right hand, so I’d have to use my left,” Frazier once said. After watching boxing on TV with his father, he filled a burlap sack with a brick, rags, corncobs and moss, then hung it from a tree.

“For the next six, seven years damn near every day I’d hit that heavy bag for an hour at a time,” he wrote in his 1996 autobiography.

At age 15, Frazier moved north to New York and then Philadelphia, where he found work at Cross Bros. Meat Packing Co. in Kensington. He began training in a Police Athletic League gym, won three national Golden Gloves titles, and then a gold medal at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.

Frazier won the world heavyweight title in a series of elimination bouts from 1968 to 1970 while Ali was banned from boxing, but the accomplishment wasn’t complete. Ali had been stripped of his title in 1967 for refusing induction into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and remained the true champion to many fans during his exile from boxing.

Frazier was labeled the “official” champion. He lobbied privately for Ali’s return to boxing and even loaned him money. But as a match between the two became inevitable, he found himself in a mean-spirited psychological battle with the media-savvy Ali, who goaded him, calling him an “Uncle Tom” and a “gorilla.”