Memories of Smokin' Joe

Former world heavyweight champion Joe Frazier. (CHARLES PLATIAU/Reuters file photo)

Former world heavyweight champion Joe Frazier. (CHARLES PLATIAU/Reuters file photo)

MURRAY GREIG, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:07 AM ET

EDMONTON - The first time I met Smokin’ Joe Frazier was a couple of days before his nephew, Bert Cooper, demolished Grande Prairie’s Willie de Wit on Valentine’s Day, 1987.

“Willie’s a nice young man, handsome and respectful. Maybe too nice,” Frazier mused over dinner at a Regina restaurant. “This fight won’t go three rounds.”

He was right, of course.

Cooper needed just over four minutes to notch the brutal KO that all but ended de Wit’s career.

“Coop’s a great prospect ... but he’s got a great trainer, too,” Frazier beamed afterwards. “I’m teachin’ him to fight like me!”

That was too tall an order.

There will never be another Smokin’ Joe.

Frazier died of liver cancer in Philadelphia last night. He was 67.

Forever linked with Muhammad Ali for their titanic trilogy of fights (1971, ‘74 and ‘75), he was arguably one of the 10 greatest heavyweight champions of all-time.

After winning the gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics — as a substitute for the injured Buster Mathis — Frazier went on to compile a professional record of 32-4-1.

Ali and George Foreman both beat him twice.

Frazier’s shining moment was when he decked Ali in the 15th and final round en route to winning their first fight, at Madison Square Garden in New York.

But it was their third battle — the “Thrilla in Manila” on Oct. 1, 1975 — that will forever be a yardstick for championship courage.

At one point during the slugfest, Ali whispered during a clinch, “Ol’ Joe Frazier, they told me you was washed up.”

Frazier snorted back, “They lied, pretty boy.”

By the end of the 14th round, Frazier was reeling blindly into Ali’s whirlwind of vicious hooks.

When he came back to his corner, trainer Eddie Futch, told him: “Sit down son. The fight’s over, Joe. Nobody will ever forget what you did here today.”

And he was right.

Four years ago, on the 40th anniversary of their bloody brawl at Madison Square Garden, Frazier and legendary Canadian champion George Chuvalo renewed their friendship at a glitzy sold-out charity banquet and auction in Toronto.

Proceeds from the $600-a-plate soiree went to Chuvalo’s Fight Against Drugs and The Joe Frazier Foundation, which finances a variety of community programs for disadvantaged youth.

“The champ has always had a soft spot for kids, and his gym here in Philadelphia is like a second home to a lot of the young people he’s helped both in and out of the ring for the past 30-odd years,” Frazier’s business manager, Les Wolf, said at the time.

“Hooking up with Chuvalo on the 40th anniversary of their fight was a no-brainer. George’s anti-drug crusade impacts the life of every young person who sees his presentation, and when Joe was asked to be part of this, the first thing he said was, ‘That’s for me!’

“Joe had tremendous respect for Chuvalo as a fighter. They’ll always be linked by their roles in one of the greatest eras in boxing history, so he jumped at the chance to show his support and respect for George’s special cause.”

The bout on July 19, 1967, marked the first time in Chuvalo’s career that the granite-jawed Canadian was stopped.

Sixteen seconds into Round 4, one of Frazier’s vaunted left hooks shattered the orbital bone at the base of Chuvalo’s right eye socket, causing his eyeball to detach.

With blood gushing from the wound, Chuvalo refused to go down, but the damage was so severe that referee John Colon stopped the fight.

“People ask me who hit harder, Frazier or Foreman,” Chuvalo says of the only men to stop him in 93 pro fights.

“Joe’s hook was like getting hit by a Pontiac going 100 miles per hour. Foreman’s punch was like a Mac truck at 50 miles an hour.

“Joe nailed me with three hooks to open the fourth round, and after that I couldn’t see them coming.

“I looked like a one-eyed cat peeping into a seafood store until he landed the shot that jarred my eyeball loose.

“I wanted to keep going, but in retrospect it’s a good thing the referee stopped it or I might have been blinded.”

That was the fight that established Frazier’s reputation as a murderous puncher.

“Oldtimers still point to the win over Chuvalo as the one that really made the young Joe Frazier,” former Ring magazine editor Bert Sugar recalled when we discussed the fight at the International Boxing Hall of Fame last summer.

“It was bloody, it was horrific, but it forever cemented the reputation of both guys: Chuvalo as the epitome of raw courage, a guy with an almost inhuman resistance to pain. and Frazier as a ferocious, relentless puncher.

“One of the best ever.”

Rest easy, champ.

murray.greig@sunmedia.ca


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