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Saturday 23 September 2017

Joe Frazier

Heavyweight boxer with a searing left hook who had three epic encounters with the great Muhammad Ali

Joe Frazier, who has died aged 67, was one of the great heavyweight boxers of his era, and will forever be remembered for his epic trilogy of fights with Muhammad Ali in the Seventies, the third of which -- the so-called "Thrilla in Manila" -- is widely regarded as the best fight of all time.

Early in the seventh round of the bout -- which took place in the Philippines on October 1, 1975 -- Ali and Frazier went into a clinch during a momentary lull in the action. "They told me Joe Frazier was washed up," murmured Ali through bleeding lips. Frazier, his swollen eyes reduced to mere slits, grinned mirthlessly. "They lied", he replied -- delivering another monstrous hook to the champion's body.

Known as "Smokin' Joe" because of his relentless all-action style, Frazier was not a great knockout artist but wore opponents down with his remorseless attacking approach. The most famous weapon in his arsenal was his feared left hook. It was one such blow that floored Ali in their first encounter -- which itself had become known as "The Fight Of The Century" -- at New York's Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971.

Frazier never forgave Ali for branding him an "Uncle Tom" in the build-up to these contests, and remained convinced that his time spent in his great foe's shadow meant that he never earned the respect he deserved.

Despite repeated attempts to heal their rift, Frazier's deep enmity towards Ali frequently resurfaced in later decades.

The youngest of seven sons, Joseph Frazier was born into a poor Baptist family at Beaufort, South Carolina, on January 12, 1944. Although as a child he was a feared streetfighter, his mother refused to allow him to play American football for fear of him being injured.

Having dropped out of high school and married at 15, he migrated north and was working in a Philadelphia slaughterhouse when he took up boxing in order to lose weight.

After being spotted by the veteran trainer "Yank" Durham, as an amateur Frazier enjoyed a run of successes, which finally came to an end when he was defeated by Buster Mathis in the US Olympic trials of 1964. Mathis broke his thumb, however, so it was Frazier who journeyed to the Tokyo Olympics, where he won the gold medal at heavyweight. Turning professional on his return, he fought his way up the rankings. On March 4, 1968, he knocked out Mathis to claim New York's version of the world title.

Stopping the white hope Jerry Quarry in seven rounds in New York in June 1969 enabled Frazier to fight for the undisputed world crown. On February 16, 1970, he beat Jimmy Ellis to become champion.

Although Ali had been stripped of the crown following his refusal to undertake military service in Vietnam, he was still widely regarded as the legitimate champion. Frazier's points victory in the first of their memorable battles at Madison Square Garden the following year suggested that the Philadelphia fighter was destined for a long reign. Watched by a massive worldwide television audience, the first in the Ali-Frazier trilogy was a huge event which changed boxing forever.

In the final round Frazier downed Ali with arguably the most vicious left hook he had ever delivered. Although Ali beat the count and survived to the final bell, the night was Frazier's.

Despite his triumph, Frazier remained the bewildered target of vitriolic criticism. Derided by Ali's supporters for his apparent reluctance to defend his titles, Frazier came to be regarded by some as the antithesis of his great rival's black militancy and anti-war views. Much to Frazier's fury, Boxing Illustrated even posed the question: "Is Joe Frazier a white champion in a black skin?"

Following a brace of easy title defences, Frazier lost both his crown and his undefeated record in sensational fashion in 1973, when the towering George Foreman knocked him out in two rounds. A rueful Frazier, who was floored six times, later reflected: "I fought a dumb fight. I kept getting up."

Frazier recaptured his winning ways by outpointing Britain's Joe Bugner at Earl's Court six months later, and in the run-up to his second fight with Ali ended up wrestling with his great rival on the floor of a television studio.

On January 28, 1974, Ali emerged a clear points victor of their eagerly anticipated rematch at Madison Square Garden, but Frazier's subsequent knockout victories over Quarry and Ellis set the stage for the "Thrilla in Manila".

By now, Ali had sensationally reclaimed the world crown from George Foreman at the age of 33. Holding up the belt in front of Frazier at a pre-fight press conference, he announced: "It will be a killa, a chilla and a thrilla when I get the gorilla in Manila."

Following a contest of frightening intensity, Ali clinched the deciding match when Eddie Futch, Frazier's trainer, pulled his battered fighter out after 14 rounds. Ali, who later described the fight as "the closest thing to death", was ahead on points but seemingly on the brink of collapse at the time of Futch's humane intervention. "Sit down, son, it's all over," Futch famously told Frazier. "But no one will ever forget what you did here today." Frazier never truly forgave him.

"Of all the men I fought," Ali would recall, "the roughest and the toughest was Joe Frazier. He brought out the best in me and the best fight we fought was in Manila. Joe Frazier is a good man. I couldn't have done it without him and he couldn't have done what he did without me. And if God ever calls me to a holy war, I want Joe Frazier fighting beside me."

Eight months later, he took on Foreman -- only to end up announcing his retirement after being stopped in round five. He launched a brief comeback at the age of 37. On December 3, 1981, he fought out a lacklustre 10-round draw against Floyd "Jumbo" Cummings. It was the final act of a 37-fight career in which he had won 32, drawn one and lost only four.

Joe Frazier, whose marriage was dissolved, is survived by eight children.

© Telegraph

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