In November of 1966, a young Joe Frazier was two years removed from having earned an Olympic gold medal.
An undefeated heavyweight prospect, his 12th and most recent fight had been the first in his professional career not to end in a knockout. His 13th would be at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles against a hard-punching, veteran bruiser named Eddie Machen of Redding, Calif.
“Joe Frazier was really making his move at that time, and I had had Eddie Machen going pretty good on his comeback. But Joe gave Eddie a real licking,” recalls Don Chargin, an 83-year-old Hall of Fame matchmaker who is now with Golden Boy Promotions, of Frazier’s 10th-round knockout victory that night.
“I mean, Joe fought for us about three or four times in Los Angeles, and he did very well. In fact, Lee Majors, the star of that old Six Million Dollar Man television series, he came to me to talk to Joe’s people and tried to buy a part of Joe’s contract at that time. He knew that Joe was a very special talent, especially with that left hook of his. That punch was really special.”
That same punch contributed to the fractured jaw of Muhammad Ali in the “Fight of their Century” in 1971, during which Frazier floored Ali in the 15th and final round on the way to becoming the first man to defeat Ali at Madison Square Garden in March of 1971.
But Frazier lost the fight of his life on Monday evening, when the 67-year-old former undisputed champion succumbed to liver cancer in Philadelphia.
“The world has lost not only the ultimate competitor in Joe Frazier, but a man who was truly a good guy,” said Chargin. “Anybody who ever saw Frazier fight, you know, he was the one guy who was never in a dull fight or a bad fight.”
Frazier, who was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990, compiled a record of 32 wins, 27 by knockout, with only four losses — to fellow hall of famers Ali and George Foreman — and one draw.
The New York State Athletic Commission recognized him as the heavyweight champ in 1968 following his 11th-round KO of giant prospect Buster Mathis, the only man to have defeated Frazier in the amateurs. Frazier earned the vacant world title that Ali was forced to abdicate when he was banned from the sport by scoring a fifth-round stoppage of Jimmy Ellis in 1970. He gained universal recognition as the undisputed champ when he defeated Ali in ’71.
Frazier and Ali engaged in one of boxing’s most celebrated trilogies, including their last bout, the famous “Thrilla in Manilla” in 1975, after which Ali described the experience as the “closest thing to dying.”
Oscar De La Hoya was born just two years after the first Frazier-Ali bout was promoted by Andrew Jerrold “Jerry” Perenchio, a former chairman and CEO of Univision, the largest Spanish-language company in the United States.
“I used to be promoted by Jerry Perenchio,” said De La Hoya. “Jerry would always tell me the amazing stories about how he promoted Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier at The Garden.”
Perenchio paid an almost unheard-of $5 million to Ali and Frazier, whose clash is credited with creating the market for closed circuit television broadcasts of boxing matches and for being a precursor of today’s cable pay-per-view, of which De La Hoya’s multi-million dollar career was a beneficiary.
“Of course, Joe Frazier was a pioneer for all of us in the sport of boxing,” said De La Hoya. “But what I most remember Jerry Parenchio telling me was about how Joe Frazier was just a great human being who was a sweetheart of a person outside of the ring. I can attest to that.”
De La Hoya had a good feeling whenever he was around Frazier.
“Joe Frazier was a warrior inside of the ring and outside of the ring, but every time that we would see each other, Joe would always give me a big hug and tell me how great of a jab that I had. I considered him a friend,” said De La Hoya.
“Joe Frazier would always go back to how important humanitarian work was to him. In my mind, that’s what I will remeber him for. He would say that we need more people to do humanitarian work. We need more people, more boxers to do that type of work. This is a tremendous loss for the boxing family and for the world. Joe Frazier will sorely missed, that’s for sure.”
Frazier turned professional with a first-round knockout of Woody Gross at the Philadelphia Convention Hall in August of 1965.
Prior to that, however, Frazier was holding down a fulltime job, working in a slaughter house, according to Larry Merchant, who was then a columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News.
“When a bunch of civc leaders got together in Philadelphia and put a fund together to help Joe after he won the Olympic gold medal, they sold 80 shares for $250 a share that enabled him to quit his job. I bought one of those shares. So it was almost as if I had grown up with Joe. He and I had kind of a personal relationship,” said Merchant, now an HBO boxing analyst.
“I knew Joe Frazier from Day One as a professional fighter, so it’s sad. Nobody ever had anything bad to say about Joe Frazier as a professional fighter, in or out of the ring. Joe Frazier’s legacy is always going to be tied up with Ali and on their fights and their being polar opposites as personalities and fighters. But as much as he held Ali in contempt for the way that Ali rediculed him, after their third fight, Frazier had nothing but good things to say about Ali and his courage.”
Lem Satterfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
photo by Craig Bennett