Having said that, in 2005, Monty D. Cox of the International Boxing Research Organization rated Smokin' Joe number 12 heavyweight of all time
, which ain't bad in anyone's book. For every fighter though, for every boxer, for every human being, there comes a point in time, maybe a day, maybe only an hour, or even a fleeting moment, after which it doesn't get any better. We may not realise this until many years later, but for Joe Frazier it was unquestionably the night he beat Muhammad Ali with a gruelling 15 round decision at Madison Square Garden.
(Two earlier reports published shortly before and after his death can be found here
Let's face it, neither he nor any boxer before or since has ever had a chance against Ali in the charisma stakes, but on March 8, 1971, Smokin' Joe became Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World. Both men were undefeated: Ali was 31-0; Frazier was 26-0. Both were also Olympic gold medalists; Ali having won the light heavyweight class at the 1960 Rome Olympics; Frazier the heavyweight at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.
Ali had been stripped of his heavyweight title amidst controversy over his opposition to the draft and the Vietnam War, but was widely recognised as the Lineal Champion. Frazier was the WBA and WBC Champions, there being only two world bodies at that time instead of about fifty as there are today. Though there was no controversy over Frazier's claim to the titles, he knew as did everyone else that until he had “whupped” Ali, he would never be considered the true champion.
The build up to the Fight Of The Century at Madison Square Garden was quite something, as was the fight itself. There were celebrities galore in attendance as well as fighters, and record purses for both gladiators. And at the end of 15 rounds, Joe's hand was raised in triumph. Such was the punishment they inflicted on each other that both men were taken to hospital afterwards. Joe cemented the win with a 15th round knock down, from which the granite jaw Ali bounced back, but the fight was clearly over, and when the score cards were totted up, there could only be one winner.
Frazier took his time recovering, taking the rest of the year off, and fighting only twice the following year, winning both fights comfortably before travelling to Jamaica in January 1973 where he was destroyed by George Foreman inside two rounds. After that he suffered what was arguably an even bigger humiliation when Joe Bugner went the distance with him, then came the inevitable return match with Ali, which he lost, and his fighting career was effectively over. His last fight was a 10 round draw against a journeyman; he finished with a professional record of 32-4-1 with 27 stoppages in those 37 fights.
Unlike some fighters, Joe Frazier's name and scandal were strangers, if anything like his great rival Ali he was too much of a nice guy away from the ring, losing money to or perhaps being fleeced by business associates. He published his ghost or co-written autobiography, and maintained his association with boxing to the end, appearing at a promotion earlier this year. He also made cameo appearances in films, and aside from the likes of Ali, Tyson and the great Larry Holmes (who also hails from Philadelphia), there will undoubtedly be a few well known faces at his funeral later today.