Editor’s Note. Word only came this past week that boxing legend Joe Frazier had contracted liver cancer, overnight it was announced that he had passed away. The following is an excellent tribute to the boxing great from Wallace Matthews of ESPN. Enjoy the excellent video that accompanies it:
Smokin’ Joe Frazier became a fighter in Philadelphia and a legend in New York.
He did it on one magical night, March 8, 1971, when Joe Frazier turned in what was arguably the greatest athletic performance ever seen under the gaudy ceiling of Madison Square Garden 3.0, and among the top five performances ever by a heavyweight champion in the history of our oldest and most demanding sport.
Willis Reed’s entrance in Game 6 of the 1970 NBA Finals might have rivaled it for drama, and some might say Michael Jordan’s 55-point game against the Knicks in 1995 matched it for skill, but no athlete has ever owned the big room the way Joe Frazier did the night he won that epic first battle with Muhammad Ali, the one that was so big it was billed simply as The Fight.
He did it with a body too short and arms too stumpy for a heavyweight, with a style that demanded he eat two shots for every one he landed, and against a man who was really not a fighter but an exquisitely proportioned and coordinated ballet dancer who happened to carry a brick in each fist.
Frazier was unforgettable that night, giving so much of himself that he spent the next month in a hospital, and for a time there were serious concerns that he might die. He was dangerously dehydrated and his kidneys were shutting down. His blood pressure soared. No one outside his circle knew at the time that for most of his career, Joe Frazier was an insulin-dependent diabetic.
All the world knew was that few men had ever paid a higher price in the single-minded pursuit of victory than Frazier did that night.
Frazier fought five of his 12 heavyweight title fights at the Garden, and in the 1970s, what we now recognize as the Golden Age of heavyweight boxing, New York was proud to call Joe Frazier our very own house heavyweight.
He won his belt here, carried proudly the title of New York State Athletic Commission Heavyweight Champion during the years of Muhammad Ali’s exile, gave a brutal beating to the tragic Jerry Quarry here and unified the title by knocking out the skilled Jimmy Ellis, a sort of Ali Lite, at the Garden in 1970.
But the night he put the exclamation point on his title, his career, and his place in boxing history is the one he would savor for the rest of his life.
In 2009, I had what I believe to be the last extended sit-down with a 65-year-old Frazier, at his apartment in Philadelphia on what happened to be the 38th anniversary of that momentous night.
Frazier was ill and hobbled, walking painfully with the aid of a cane due to a recent car accident that had caused spinal damage. His eyes, one of which had been operated on for a detached retina — an injury he concealed from ringside doctors and fought with several times — were milky, his speech fuzzy with age and painkillers and punches.
And he was carrying a pain in his heart, having recently gone through a bitter falling-out with one of his daughters over money, a dispute that landed father and daughter on opposite sides of a lawsuit. He was also hurting for money, and the barbs — cruel, racial putdowns — hurled his way by Ali some 40 years earlier clearly still stung.
So when we got to talking about The Fight, where all conversations with Frazier eventually landed, his eyes glinted. His words suddenly…(read more)