Joe Frazier, the Olympic and heavyweight boxing champion who defeated Muhammad Ali in the 1971 Fight of Century, has died from liver cancer. He was 67.
Last week, the family of the Hall of Fame heavyweight disclosed that Frazier was under hospice care after being diagnosed with advanced liver cancer just one month ago.
“We The Family of the 1964 Olympic Boxing Heavyweight Gold Medalist, Former Heavyweight Boxing Champion and International Boxing Hall of Fame Member Smokin’ Joe Frazier, regrets to inform you of his passing,” read an official statement from the Frazier family. “He transitioned from this life as ‘One of God’s Men,’ on the eve of November 7, 2011 at his home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We thank you for your prayers for our Father and vast outpouring of love and support. Respectfully, we request time to grieve privately as a family. Our father’s home going celebration will be announced as soon as possible. Thank you for your understanding.”
The youngest of 11 children born to sharecroppers Rubin and Dolly Frazier in 1944, Joe was raised on the family’s 10 acre farm in the Laurel Bay section of Beaufort, South Carolina. Nicknamed “Billy Boy,” Frazier’s stocky build made him sought after by classmates to fight off bullies. He developed a love of boxing after his parents purchased a black and white television where he idolized legends such as Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. He began informal boxing training on a self-constructed heavybag. The famous slashing motion of his left hook would be the result of a freak farm injury that made his left arm permanently crooked.
With racism being a impediment to his boxing aspirations, Frazier left his family and relocated to Philadelphia in 1960. Under famed trainer Yancey “Yank” Durham, Frazier would only lose one amateur bout before making the U.S. Olympic boxing team in 1964 after rival Buster Mathis pulled out with a hand injury. Frazier posted three knockouts to make the finals against Hans Huber. Frazier would defeat him by decision and hold distinction as the only U.S. boxer of the ’64 Olympics to bring home a gold medal.
Turning pro in 1965, Frazier became an immediate force with knockouts in his first 11 fights. Future Hall of Fame trainer Eddie Futch joined Frazier’s camp and refined his style to include constant bobbing and weaving to throw off the timing of taller fighters. By 1968, he had knockout wins over noted contenders George Chuvalo, Eddie Machen and Doug Jones. Frazier would win the NY State Athletic Commission heavyweight title with an 11th round KO of Buster Mathis.
Following title defenses over Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena, Frazier would face Jimmy Ellis in 1970 to determine the sport’s recognized champion after the stripping of Muhammad Ali for refusing military induction in the Vietnam War. In front of a lively Madison Square Garden crowd, Frazier weathered an early Ellis lead to score two big knockdowns in the fourth. Ellis did not answer the bell for the fifth.
On March 8, 1971, a 27-year-old Frazier would meet the returning 29-year-old Muhammad Ali in what was dubbed “The Fight of the Century.” The contest between two undefeated champions also became a lightning rod for the political and social unrest in United States, as Ali derided Frazier as an “Uncle Tom” and the “white man’s champion” for not publicly supporting his Vietnam decision. The fight itself, held at Madison Square Garden, saw Ali jump out to an early lead by peppering Frazier with jabs and straight rights. However, pressure and hooks to the body slowed Ali by the middle rounds. Frazier’s left hook began landing with jarring authority, most notably in the 11th when Ali was badly hurt and nearly KO’d. The competitive bout was sealed for Frazier in the 15th round by an iconic left hook that dropped Ali.
Frazier would hold the title until 1973, when he was upset by George Forman and KO’d in two rounds after rising from six knockdowns. Muhammad Ali would enact revenge a year later with a close points decision win. Frazier would post two impressive rematch KOs of Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Ellis before facing Ali in 1975 for the famous “Thrilla In Manila.”
In a brutal contest, Ali rallied in the late rounds to swell shut Frazier’s eyes. After a 14th round that saw Ali land at will, Frazier, amid protests, was pulled from the fight by trainer Eddie Futch. Frazier would lose by knockout in his next bout, a 1976 rematch with George Foreman, before retiring. He would make a one-fight comeback in 1981, earning a draw with unheralded Jumbo Cummings.
In retirement, Frazier trained local children at his Philadelphia gym, which closed in 2010. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. Although several reconciliation attempts were made over the years with Muhammad Ali, the pair retained an on and off relationship.
“The news about Joe is hard to believe and even harder to accept,” said Muhammad Ali last week upon hearing of Frazier’s illness. “Joe is a fighter and a champion and I am praying he is fighting now. My family and I are keeping Joe and his family in our daily prayers. Joe has a lot of friends pulling for him, and I’m one of them.”
Joe Frazier’s final ring record stands at 32-4-1, with 27 KOs.