When Eva Futch saw Joe Frazier for the last time on June 10, the former undisputed heavyweight champion was kicking it on a stage at a Las Vegas club alongside a Tom Jones impersonator.
“Joe was tap dancing, which was one of the styles of dancing that he loved the most, which, for him, was sort of like the modern version stepping. He had taken some lessons from an instructor who ended up retiring out here in Las Vegas,” said Eva Futch, the widow of Frazier’s former trainer, Eddie Futch, who died 10 years ago last month at the age of 90.
“Joe also loved to sing, and he had certain songs that really fit his range. Like that song, ‘There Should Be a Dog Heaven.’ It’s the cutest song that Joe sung so well. When I saw him this summer, I noticed how tired he looked. Yet when I saw him, he was still dancing and singing and stepping, and I remember thinking, ‘This is just amazing, considering what he was dealing with.'”
The 67-year-old Frazier, the first man to defeat Muhammad Ali in “The Fight of The Century” of 1971, succumbed to liver cancer in Philadelphia on Monday evening.
Frazier may have had cancer for months prior to seeing Eva Futch in June, yet she could tell that the fighter within him would not allow him to give in.
“When I saw him last, I remember thinking that ‘this is a champion in every way,’ because he was able to keep going even though he was tired,” said Eva Futch.
“Joe was Eddie’s favorite fighter. Eddie was always known to say that every fight trainer or fight manager ought to have a Joe Frazier once in a lifetime. So I’m really sad that Joe is gone.”
Frazier captured the Olympic gold medal in Tokyo in 1964 despite having a broken thumb on one of his hands. Frazier beat Ali in the first fight of a celebrated trilogy that culminated with the famous “Thrilla in Manilla” in 1975, after which Ali described the experience as the “closest thing to dying.”
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.
“When you think about his life, Joe was always able to just display that fighting spirit, considering his upbringing in the South, and the Jim Crow era, how he became a champion,” said Eva Futch. “It helped him along in his life. It was his best asset, but, in some ways, it was also a difficult aspect.”
Five-time Trainer of The Year Freddie Roach, a former assistant to Eddie Futch, recalls Frazier exhbiting that same relentless desire during his final bout of the three against Ali.
When Eddie Futch waved an end to “The Thrilla” to protect the badly battered Frazier from further punishment, Frazier protested angrily while still on his stool.
“Joe was upset with Eddie after he stopped that fight. I know he was mad at Eddie for a long time after that. It took a little time for him to get over it. But Eddie was trying to save his life,” said Roach.
“Eddie knew that Joe was blind in one eye and he couldn’t see the punches coming. But you know fighters, we never want to stop the fight. That’s the nature of the fighter.”
Roach sees a similar desire in the man he presently trains, RING No. 1-pound-for-pound and eight-division titleholder Manny Pacquiao (53-3-2, 38 KOs).
Pacquiao takes a 14-bout winning streak that includes eight knockouts into Saturday night’s HBO Pay Per View televised WBO welterweight title defense opposite RING No. 5-rated and WBO/WBA lightweight beltholder Juan Manuel Marquez (53-5-1, 39 KOs), whom Pacquiao has battled through a draw and a split-decision victory in 2004 and 2008, respectively.
Does Pacquiao fight anything like Frazier?
“He definitely does. Both guys come to fight. There’s a lot of action from both guys. It’s a sad time for boxing,” said Roach.
“But it’s kind of strange that Joe’s death comes right before Manny fights his third fight with Marquez. It’s sort of like Frazier had his three fights with Ali.”
Lem Satterfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org