One of the most famous heavyweight boxing champions ever—back when boxing champions still meant something in pop culture—Joe Frazier died Monday. He was 67. Frazier was celebrated for his relentlessness in the ring; he stalked opponents with stinging jabs, pulverizing body blows, and his trademark left hook—the punch that famously slammed Muhammad Ali in the jaw and knocked him to the pavement during the so-called “Fight Of The Century” at New York’s Madison Square Garden in March 1971.
Frazier was diagnosed with liver cancer just one month ago, but his condition quickly worsened, necessitating that he enter hospice care. In the end, cancer robbed Frazier of his life, but not his power: He remains a towering figure in the history of boxing, which for much of the 20th century not only dominated the imaginations of sports fans, but of the culture at large. The trilogy of bouts that Frazier fought with Ali were seen by many as a battleground for rooting out the deep political and social divisions of the time. Ali, an outspoken advocate for civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War, was depicted as the representative for progressivism; the apolitical Frazier was cast as the establishment alternative. As Norman Mailer wrote in Life magazine, “Frazier had become the white man’s fighter, Mr. Charley was rooting for Frazier, and that meant blacks were boycotting him in their heart.”
As evidenced by the tributes written in the wake of his death, Frazier is still defined somewhat by this supposed dichotomy with Ali, and his resentment of this never really went away. Frazier’s bitterness boiled over publicly in 1996 when, as Ali lit the flame at the Olympic games in Atlanta, Frazier said he wished he could have “pushed him in.”
Frazier and Ali occasionally made public statements of reconciliation—Ali expressed his “respect and admiration” for Frazier in a statement released after his passing—but those pre-fight “Uncle Tom” taunts from 40 years ago still lingered. How could they not, given Frazier’s background? Born on Jan. 12, 1944, Frazier grew up the youngest of 12 children in Laurel Bay, South Carolina. His father was a sharecropper who—according to Frazier’s 1996 autobiography Smokin’ Joe—also ran moonshine and grew funny-smelling tobacco that Frazier later guessed was marijuana. Frazier dropped out of school at 13, moving to New York two years later to live with one of his brothers. He struggled to find work, and wound up stealing cars and selling them to a local junkyard for $50 apiece. At 16, he left for Philadelphia, and started boxing to lose weight as he worked at a slaugherhouse to make ends meet. He was discovered by trainer Yank Durham training in the city’s Police Athletic League gym. Durham later said of Frazier that he’d “had plenty of other boxers with more raw talent, but none with more dedication and strength.”
Under Durham’s guidance, Frazier won the heavyweight gold medal at the 1964 Olympics, and turned pro the following year. By 1968, he was 21-0, with 11 wins by knockout. Ali was the heavyweight champion, but in 1967 he refused to be drafted. Ali’s title was stripped, and he was convicted of evasion. In Ali’s absence, Frazier assumed the title, defeating Buster Mathis in 1968 and Jimmy Ellis in 1970.
Once Ali’s boxing license was reinstated in 1970, and he knocked out contenders Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena, Frazier finally had the chance to battle the “true” champ. The first Ali-Frazier fight was a monumental media event, drawing an audience of 300 million worldwide. Inside Madison Square Garden, a who’s-who of celebrities and politicians gathered. (Frank Sinatra even agreed to take photos for Life if it meant he could sit ringside.) And the fight lived up to the hype: In the 15th round, Frazier finally knocked Ali down, and he was awarded a unanimous decision. After the fight, for which he earned a then-astronomical $2.5 million, Frazier bought a 368-acre plantation near Laurel Bay. He had come full circle.
By the time Frazier faced Ali again in 1974, his five-year reign as heavyweight champ had ended at the hands of George Foreman, who knocked him down six times during a fight in Kingston, Jamaica before it was called in the second round. Ali beat Frazier in a unanimous 12-round decision, and then beat Foreman in the “Rumble In The Jungle” fight to win back the heavyweight crown. This set the stage for the third and final Ali-Frazier fight, the “Thrilla In Manilla,” in October 1975. A crowd of 25,000 endured stifling heat as Ali and Frazier battered each other; Ali took control early, then Frazier seemed to have the upper hand. In the 13th round, Ali knocked out Frazier’s mouthpiece; in the 14th, Frazier could no longer see out of his left eye, and his right eye was puffing shut. Frazier’s trainer asked to stopped the fight, and Ali later said that this final match-up was the “closest I’ve come to death.”
"Technically the loser of two of the three fights, [Frazier] seems not to understand that they ennobled him as much as they did Ali," author David Halberstam later wrote. “The only way we know of Ali's greatness is because of Frazier's equivalent greatness, that in the end there was no real difference between the two of them as fighters, and when sports fans and historians think back, they will think of the fights as classics, with no identifiable winner or loser.”
Frazier retired in 1976 after his next fight, when Foreman once again beat him by technical knockout, this time in the fifth round. Frazier left boxing with only four losses—all of them at the hands of Ali and Foreman.
Those of us who missed Frazier’s prime as a fighter know him as the guy who played Joe Frazier in Rocky and two episodes of The Simpsons. Less celebrated was his career as a singer, which he was afforded because of his fame as a boxer, not because he had any discernible musical talent. Recording as Joe Frazier And The Knockouts, Frazier stuck to songs that could be easily applied to his day job, like “The Bigger They Come” and “Knock On Wood.” He also recorded a version of “My Way” that might be lacking in Frazier’s mumble-mouth delivery, but nevertheless stands true to a man who fought his way to iconic status.