Celebrating Joe Frazier’s 80th birthday: Smokin’ Joe’s five greatest hits

“They don’t make them like that anymore!” Often perfumed by nostalgia, it’s a phrase you hear often when it comes to great sportsmen. However, in the case of former heavyweight champion of the world Smokin’ Joe Frazier, it’s every bit as accurate as his signature left hook.

Frazier would have turned 80 years old today. Tragically, the great warrior passed away on November 7, 2011, succumbing to liver cancer at the age of 67. He left behind a glorious and accomplished ring legacy, having waged war against the best of the best during a heavyweight golden era.

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Born in Beaufort, South Carolina on January 12, 1944, Frazier first came to prominence at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. He was the only American to win a gold medal that year, but while a professional career would eventually follow, Frazier didn’t have the requisite financial backing one might expect. Truth be told, he was flat broke.

A group of businessmen set up a corporation named Cloverlay that would allow Frazier to train full-time. In Philadephia, he was coached by Yancey “Yank” Durham, who also had assistance from future Hall of Fame trainer Eddie Futch. Futch would eventually take over in the final chapter of Frazier’s career following Durham’s untimely passing in 1973. As a team, they reached the pinnacle and achieved greatness.

The Sporting News looks back at five of Smokin’ Joe Frazier’s greatest hits:

Joe Frazier fires a left hook at Buster Mathis

Herb Scharfman /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

5. Buster Mathis

  • Date/ Location: March 4, 1968/ Madison Square Garden, New York City

Heavyweight champion of the world Muhammad Ali had refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army and was stripped of his championship in April 1967. Boxing needed a replacement.

However, having worked his way up to number one heavyweight contender, Frazier declined to participate in the WBA’s eight-man elimination tournament. Instead, the Philadelphia powerhouse continued to hone his skills by obliterating every contender in his path.

In the first boxing event to be held at the new Madison Square Garden, Frazier was matched against old amateur rival Buster Mathis for the New York State Athletic Commission championship.

These two had a history. Mathis was the last fighter to have defeated Frazier when he outpointed him at the Olympic trials in 1964. In fact, had Mathis not suffered a hand injury, it would have been him who represented the United States at the Tokyo games instead of Smokin’ Joe. There had been a lot of water under the bridge, but there was still a score to settle.

Call it no contest. While the rotund Mathis was an adept amateur, he was no match for Frazier as a professional. The Mississippi native soaked up a ridiculous amount of punishment and was finally taken out in round eleven by a thumping left hook to the skull.

Result: TKO 11

MORE: Ali, Foreman, Frazier and the best five-year run in boxing history

4. Oscar Bonavena 2

  • Date/ Location: December 10, 1968/ Spectrum, Philadelphia

Ever since he’d won a 10-round split decision over Oscar Bonavena in September 1966, Frazier had wanted the bull-chested Argentinian back in the ring.

Bonavena had floored Frazier twice in their first fight and was one knockdown away from a TKO victory in round two. While he came back to win his 12th professional outing, Frazier had never been down before and was embarrassed by his showing.

But Frazier didn’t get it all his way in the rematch either. Bonavena presented an awkward style that would also give Muhammad Ali fits when the pair clashed in December 1970. However, Frazier was clearly the better fighter and scored with the more meaningful blows.

The action was mainly contested up close and Bonavena frequently found himself trapped against the ropes. In his first completed 15-round contest, Frazier emerged as a runaway unanimous decision winner and retained his NYSAC championship for the second time.

Result: UD 15

Joe Frazier lets fly at contender Jerry Quarry

Herb Scharfman/ Sports Imagery/ Getty Images

3. Jerry Quarry

  • Date/ Location: June 23, 1969/ Madison Square Garden, New York City

In the fourth defense of the NYSAC championship, Frazier took on California-based contender Jerry Quarry in what turned out to be an action-packed shootout.

Quarry was one of the best heavyweights in the world at the time, having scored wins over Floyd Patterson, Thad Spencer and Buster Mathis. He was an excellent counterpuncher, an asset that many felt would be the perfect antidote for Frazier’s lethal aggression.

Both men fired away like lightweights and the crowd was at a fever pitch throughout. The challenger did well early, but Frazier found his groove and began landing the more telling shots. Quarry soon began to wilt and he sustained serious damage to his right that forced a stoppage at the end of the seventh round. The bout was named The Ring Magazine Fight of the Year.

As a side note, future heavyweight champion of the world George Foreman made his professional debut on the undercard.

Result: TKO 7

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2. Jimmy Ellis

  • Date/ Location: February 16, 1970/ Madison Square Garden, New York City

With Muhammad Ali still struggling to get a boxing license, Frazier opted for the next best thing – Jimmy Ellis. Ellis was Ali’s childhood friend, a former sparring partner, and he was coached and managed by the same trainer, Angelo Dundee.

A clever boxer who began his career in the middleweight ranks, Ellis had bulked up to heavyweight. He won the WBA tournament that had been organized when Ali was banished from boxing, scoring wins over Leotis Martin, Oscar Bonavena, Floyd Patterson and Jerry Quarry.

Against Frazier, Ellis didn’t have a prayer. He won the first round by boxing on the move, but Frazier soon zoned in on the target. A brutal combination decked Ellis in round four, and soon after he got to his feet, Frazier floored him with the left hook from hell.

Miraculously Ellis beat the count, but Dundee was unhappy with what he saw in the corner and stopped the fight. Frazier was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

Result: Frazier TKO 4

Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali

1. Muhammad Ali

  • Date/ Location: March 8, 1971/ Madison Square Garden, New York City

What can be written about The Fight of the Century that hasn’t been written before?

It was Ali’s speed, movement, jab, and sharpshooting versus Frazier’s power, head movement, body attack, and signature left hook. The pair were made for each other and set a benchmark for heavyweight combat that has never been matched.

Frazier took over in the middle rounds, absorbed everything Ali could throw, and pulverized his rival’s midsection. A devastating attack had Ali close to going down in round eleven, but Frazier saved the best for last, flooring The Greatest with a back-breaking left hook in the final round.

Anyone with a modicum of boxing knowledge knows that this is the finest triumph of Joe Frazier’s career. However, given the opponent, the stakes, and the magnitude of the event, this one is in the running for the greatest win in boxing history.

Result: Frazier UD 15

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