Joe Frazier dies at 67; heavyweight champ had epic bouts with Muhammad Ali

Joe Frazier in 2009.
(Al Bello / Getty Images)

Joe Frazier, the heavyweight boxing champion who in 1971 became the first fighter to defeat Muhammad Ali, then lost two epic rematches including a ferocious battle known as the “Thrilla in Manila,” died Monday night. He was 67.

Smokin’ Joe, as he was known, died in Philadelphia, said his manager, Leslie Wolff. He had liver cancer.

It was a golden age of heavyweight boxing in the 1970s, when fight fans filled massive arenas and boosted the sport’s television ratings to watch the likes of Ali and Frazier and George Foreman, Jerry Quarry and Ken Norton.

Photos: Joe Frazier through the years

In his 37 professional fights, Frazier won 32 times — 27 by knockout — and lost only four, with one draw. But he never really accepted his 1-2 record against Ali.

“I whupped him three times,” Frazier said many times over the years.

They met for the first time on March 8, 1971, in New York’s Madison Square Garden, with each fighter guaranteed $2.5 million. Ali, then 31-0, had been stripped of his heavyweight titles when, as Cassius Clay, he refused to be inducted into the military after being drafted for the Vietnam War. Frazier, at 26-0, had captured the title of undisputed heavyweight champion in 1970 with a technical knockout of Jimmy Ellis.

It was a brutal battle, rated by many as the “fight of the century” and considered the best boxing match of all time at any weight. When Frazier knocked Ali down in the 15th and final round and won on points, both received rave reviews for their performances. Both also went immediately to the hospital.

Before they could be paired again in the ring, Frazier defended his title four times, most notably on Jan. 22, 1973, against Foreman in Kingston, Jamaica.

Even the burly, fearsome-looking Foreman, who was 4 inches taller, admitted that the thought of getting into the ring with the brawling fireplug Frazier frightened him.

“Every time he swung at me,” Foreman said, “it scared five years out of my life.”

Nevertheless, in the second round, Foreman caught Frazier with a right uppercut that sent the fighter from Philadelphia to the canvas.

Sitting ringside for the boxing telecast was announcer Howard Cosell, by now internationally known for his boisterous and opinionated broadcast style. When Frazier, the champion, hit the deck, Cosell stole the moment and the show with his dramatic bellowing of the call:


It was as if he was calling an airplane crash rather than a boxing match. It not only stuck with Frazier, who got to his feet too late to avoid being counted out, but it is a mocking call to this day among boxing fans for all such spectacular knockdowns.

After Foreman took Frazier’s title away, Frazier fought Ali twice more, losing in a more subdued battle in the Garden in 1974, when Ali kept Frazier away more effectively with holding and clinching, and a year later, after Ali had gotten his title back by beating Foreman in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo).

It was for this third match, on Oct. 1, 1975, in Quezon City, the Philippines, that Ali predicted he would have an easy time with Frazier. In the pre-fight promotions for what was dubbed the “Thrilla in Manila,” Ali called Frazier an “Uncle Tom” and a “gorilla” and repeatedly ridiculed him. The fight was anything but easy, and Ali later likened it to being “the closest thing to dying.” By the 14th round, both having hit and been hit too many times to count, Frazier’s eyes were nearly swollen shut and he couldn’t see Ali’s punches, even though he had stood in and flailed away for several rounds right through his near-blindness.

Finally, after the 14th round, his veteran trainer, Eddie Futch, over loud protests from Frazier, threw in the towel to end the fight.

“Sit down, son,” Futch told Frazier. “It’s all over. Nobody will ever forget what you did here today.”

Frazier and Ali had fought 41 rounds and served up a boxing trilogy for the ages.

Frazier fought only two more times. In 1976, he lost to Foreman in a fifth-round knockout, announced his retirement, then finished for good in 1981 after a 10-round draw with Floyd Cummings.

Joseph William Frazier was born Jan. 12, 1944, in Beaufort, S.C. He was the youngest of 12 surviving children of Rubin and Dolly Frazier and lived his early life on a farm, where his parents worked as sharecroppers.

He was inspired to think about being a boxer when somebody told him he was built like a young Joe Louis, and when he was 15, he moved north to Philadelphia to stay with relatives and find work. One of his first jobs was in a slaughterhouse, where he would pummel the hanging slabs of beef for exercise. Years later, Sylvester Stallone borrowed from that scene for his “Rocky” movies.

Frazier worked his way through the ranks of local Golden Gloves competition in Philadelphia and lost only once as an amateur, to Buster Mathis, who beat him out of the heavyweight spot on the U.S. Olympic team for the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo. But Mathis was injured before the Games, Frazier won the spot back and took home a gold medal.

After his boxing career ended, Frazier purchased a gym in Philadelphia, where he lived in his later years. Along the way, he sang with a group called the Knockouts and had a clothing brand, a restaurant and a limousine service. He dabbled in investments and real estate.

The tension between Ali and Frazier remained for decades. Frazier could not forget the taunts and the insults — Ali always said they were nothing more than fight promotion hype — and when Frazier was interviewed shortly after Ali, shaking and feeble from dementia and Parkinson’s disease, lighted the torch to begin the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, he said he wished Ali had “fallen into the fire.”

But in an interview in Jet magazine later that year, and in some subsequent interviews, an aging Frazier said he no longer held a grudge.

“It’s like we were fighting the Vietnam War,” he said. “We should meet and hug.”

Frazier, who was divorced from his wife, Florence, is survived by 11 children. His son Marvis was a heavyweight contender in the 1980s, and daughter Jacqui Frazier-Lyde fought and lost to Ali’s daughter Laila in 2001.

Photos: Joe Frazier through the years