Born January 12, 1944 in Beaufort, South Carolina; son of Rubin and Dolly Frazier; wife: Florence; children: Marvis, Weatta, Jo-Netta, Natasha, Jacqui, Hector, Marcus.
Began pro boxing career 1958; owner, member of the rock-blues group Smokin’ Joe and the Knockouts; owner of Smokin Joe’s Corner restaurant; owner, president, Joe Frazier & Sons Limousine Service, 1974-; owner, Joe Frazier’s Gymnasium, 1974-.
Joe Frazier had many moments in boxing history. It began in 1964 when he won the Olympic gold medal in Japan, and peaked when he became the first American Olympic heavyweight champion to also win the heavyweight title of the world. When he was champion he held the highest knockout percentage in history, and while he had been knocked down a few times, he had never been knocked out. Frazier was involved in “the fight of the century” when he fought Muhammad Ali in 1971 for the world heavyweight title, which Frazier held. The Frazier-Ali fight was the first of three battles, but this fight of the century set an indoor boxing record for attendance and revenue, and along with their third fight, is considered classic boxing and an example of athletic courage and endurance.
Born at Beaufort, South Carolina, on January 17, 1944, Frazier grew up on the ten-acre family farm with his twelve brothers and sisters. A thirteenth child, David, died of diphtheria as an infant, making Frazier the youngest in the large family. His parents, Rubin and Dolly Frazier, grew vegetables and raised hogs but their main income came from working on the large farms of white landowners. His mother worked in the fields while his father was an overseer. Nicknamed Billy Boy, Frazier was, by his own admission, his father’s favorite and was frequently at his side. He says in his autobiography, “…my daddy was my hero, my heartbeat. We were always together.” Frazier’s mother was a devout Baptist who was strong on love and discipline and Frazier occasionally felt the “switch” made of braided tree vines. His mother’s word was law and the kids were expected to listen and obey. Frazier’s childhood was a rural Southern existence; he spent much of his time helping his father operate a still and pitching in to do the daily chores. And just as his parents and siblings did, he worked in the fields of one of the large farms.
When television became generally available in the early 1950s, Frazier’s family was the first to have one in the Laurel Bay section of Beaufort. In those early days of television, boxing was a large part of the limited programming. Frazier’s family would watch the fights and saw boxing greats Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano, Willie Pep, and Rocky Graziano. At the time eight-year-old Frazier was not particularly interested in boxing but he did know who former heavyweight champion Joe Louis was. When an uncle commented on young Frazier with his stocky build being the next Joe Louis, it made quite an impression on the boy. From that time on Frazier worked to fulfill that prophecy. He rigged a heavy bag from aburlap sack and rags, corncobs, brick, and Spanish moss. He hung the bag from the branch of an oak tree in the yard and began hitting it almost daily for the next several years. He was ridiculed by many, including his own family, when he told them he was going to be a champion of the world like Joe Louis. He relates in his autobiography that he replied to them, “You all can laugh but I’m gonna be world champion some day.” Segregated Beaufort had no gyms and the playgrounds could not be used by blacks. He says, “All I had to build my dream on was that homemade heavy bag.”
Frazier attended a segregated school and did not find much to interest him there. Learning did not come easily for him but he admitted in his autobiography, “Lots of times my work day would begin after school and run past midnight….I’d be too tired to pay much attention the next day in school…after walking four miles to get there. Not that I was any more eager for learning when I was rested.” He frequently skipped school and dropped out when he was 14. Frazier’s early teens were spent doing farm work, running around with friends to clubs and parties, street fighting, and “chasing girls.” Frazier met Florence Smith, his future wife, when he was almost 14 and she was 16. But Frazier’s life took a turn when he ran into trouble with the owners of the farm he worked on. Tensions ran high in those days when whites and blacks argued. Frazier lost his job and became determined to leave the racist South. It was almost a year later before he made enough money for the bus fare to leave. He worked first as a delivery man for Coca-Cola and then as a construction worker at the Marines training depot on Parris Island in South Carolina. He headed for New York to live with relatives and to begin a new life.
After an unsuccessful attempt to find regular work in New York, the young Frazier decided to move on to Philadelphia, where he had relatives. Eventually he got a job with Cross Brothers, a slaughterhouse, where he did a variety of chores. The pay was barely enough to get by, and now he was feeling the responsibility of being a family man–back home in Beaufort his girlfriend Florence had just given birth to their son, Marvis. While working at Cross Brothers, Frazier developed a habit that would later be immortalized by actor Sylvester Stallone in the boxing movie, Rocky: Frazier practiced his punches on the hanging sides of beef when he moved them into the refrigerator. But he gradually stopped training and gained weight until he was 220 pounds. It was not until late in 1961 that he decided he was going to change his life and revive his Joe Louis dream.
When the overweight Frazier joined the Police Athletic League gym in Philadelphia, he was determined to trim down and pursue his dream of being a professional boxer. It did not take him long to find out that even though he had been the street fighter to contend with in Beaufort, his skills were not enough to keep him from taking a beating in the gym ring. His first sparring session hurt and he realized he had a long way to go. But Frazier knew from that first session on that he was where he wanted to be, and that with hard work he would find the success he craved.
With regular boxing instruction and training Frazier gained a reputation in the gym. With the guidance of Duke Dugent, the gym manager, and trainer Yancey (Yank) Durham, Frazier developed a healthier lifestyle as well. By 1962 Frazier had trimmed down to 190 pounds and was a “lean, mean fighting machine.” He saw the first reward for his hard work when he won the Philadelphia Golden Gloves novice heavyweight title that year. He went on to win the Middle Atlantic Golden Gloves heavyweight championship in 1962, 1963, and 1964.
In the fall of 1963 Frazier and Florence were married. Frazier continued to work at Cross Brothers during the day and to train in the gym at night. In the gym his style of fighting was compared to a boxer he admired, Rocky Marciano. Marciano had been known as an aggressive fighter and had retired undefeated as heavyweight champion in 1956. Frazier also developed a reputation for his devastating left hook, and frequently voiced his intention of becoming the heavyweight champion of the world.
Frazier’s only loss while an amateur was to Buster Mathis, a big, heavy, yet agile man. When the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team was being decided for the 1964 games in Tokyo, Frazier and Mathis met in the finals of the trials. Frazier was eager to redeem his only amateur loss, but Mathis won again. It was a big disappointment for Frazier, who considered quitting boxing. But he was convinced by Duke Dugent and Yank Durham to not only continue boxing but to get on as a sparring partner for the Olympic team as an alternate to Mathis.
Frazier was concerned about losing his job if he went to the Olympics. He and Florence now had three children and her job at Sears Roebuck was not enough to keep the family afloat. When Cross Brothers agreed to hold his job Frazier went to the Olympic training camp in San Francisco. During this time Frazier worked hard at sparring and roadwork. During an exhibition one evening Mathis broke a knuckle while boxing with Frazier. The injury opened up a spot on the team and suddenly Frazier had a chance to prove himself at the Olympics. In the Olympics Frazier was one bout away from the gold medal when he hurt his left thumb. He was not sure how badly it was damaged and while he sought medical treatment, which consisted of ice and wrapping, he turned down an X-ray, fearing he would be dropped from competition if the finger was broken. Despite using his right hand more than his devastating left hook, which gave him severe pain each time he used it, he beat his opponent, Hans Huber of Germany, to win a gold medal for the United States. Frazier says in his autobiography, “The thrill of representing the U.S. and winning despite a handicap–well, there was no feeling quite like that. I had taken a giant step toward my uncle Israel’s casual prediction that Billy Boy would be the next Joe Louis.”
With his Olympic victory Frazier thought he would finally begin to see some financial and professional success. But surgery on his thumb left him unable to work in the slaughterhouse. Frazier decided it was time to find a sponsor to help him establish his professional boxing career, but he did not have much luck finding one even after winning the gold medal. The Christmas of 1964 was a dismal one for Frazier, who did not have money for gifts. A timely story in the local paper changed things for the family as gifts and money poured in from a concerned public.
Frazier continued to fight and to scratch for income. His pay for his first professional bout in August of 1965 was from selling tickets to the fight. Also that year, Frazier’s father, Rubin, died of lung cancer at age 53. Frazier took it hard, trying to find comfort in the fact that his father had been alive when he won the gold medal. His financial problems ended in late 1965 when a group of financial backers came together and formed Cloverlay, Inc. to run his professional boxing career. Part of the agreement was that Frazier would receive a salary of 100 dollars per week and this would increase as the purses did. During this lean time Frazier went to work as a salesman.
Frazier’s nickname, ‘Smokin’ Joe,’ came from Yank Durham when he used to tell Frazier before a fight, “Go out there…and make smoke come from those gloves. You can make smoke, boy. Just don’t let up.” Frazier continued to fight and develop, striving to remain undefeated and heading for the championship. He was nearly beaten in a bout with Oscar Bonavena in September of 1966 when Bonavena knocked him down twice in the second round. By New York rules the fight ended if an opponent went down three times in the same round. Frazier managed to stay up and went on to win by a split decision.
There were suggestions that Frazier should fight Muhammad Ali, the current heavyweight title holder. But Yank Durham wanted Frazier to have the chance to develop properly so that when he eventually did face Ali or another champion, he would win. Frazier began to study Ali. When he went to watch him fight in March of 1967 the two began what would become years of competitive bantering. While Ali had changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali in 1964 when he converted to the Black Muslim faith, Frazier insisted on calling him Cassius Clay. Ali had been known from the start of his own career as being a loud-mouthed self-promoter, yet the public and sports writers seemed to love him rather than despise him for it. Ali constantly put Frazier down and while Frazier took it in stride in the beginning, he soon deeply resented it.
In June of 1967 Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title and lost his boxing license for resisting the Vietnam draft because of his religious beliefs. This action left the heavyweight title vacant so the World Boxing Association (WBA) held a tournament to name a new champion. Frazier did not participate though and instead took a different route, fighting his nemesis Buster Mathis for the heavyweight title in New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Maine in March of 1968. He won by knockout. After defending the title through 1969 Frazier fought Jimmy Ellis, who had won the WBA tournament. Frazier beat Ellis to become the heavyweight champion of the world. But Frazier did not win respect from the boxing public–many felt Ali’s license and title should not have been taken and they still considered him the champion.
When Ali’s boxing license was restored in 1970 by a federal court, he returned to the ring determined to regain the heavyweight title. On March 8, 1971, Frazier and Ali faced each other at Madison Square Garden, with the heavyweight title of the world on the line. By this time Eddie Futch was assisting Yank Durham in Frazier’s training. More than 20,000 people attended this fight, among them celebrities like actor Burt Lancaster doing radio commentary and singer Frank Sinatra photographing the fight for Life Magazine. Futch told Sports Illustrated, “I have never seen any boxing event that had so many celebrities.” The attendance (gate) and admission fees collected over a million dollars and set indoor boxing records. Closed-circuit television allowed another half million viewers, and viewers in foreign countries also tuned in for a total audience of about 300 million viewers. The fighters each received 2.5 million dollars for the bout. The 15-round fight has been considered among the best in history both for its gate and revenue as well as the action in the ring. It was a hard-fought battle that left the crowd breathless and wondering how long either fighter could continue giving and taking such brutal battering. In the fifteenth round Frazier’s left hook put Ali on his back. Ali quickly got up, but Frazier won the fight by unanimous decision and retained the title. Both fighters went to the hospital. The thrill of rightfully winning the title consoled Frazier during the next 10 months when he suffered from “athlete’s kidney” and could not box.
After his match with Muhammad Ali Frazier earned, in addition to financial rewards, a certain amount of celebrity. He had started the Smokin’ Joe Musical Revue and toured the United States and Europe. He appeared on the Dean Martin television show and later bought a plantation in South Carolina. He eventually moved his mother to the plantation. He was also invited by Governor John C. West to speak to the South Carolina legislature.
Frazier only fought twice in 1972 and on January 22, 1973, he fought and lost his title to George Foreman in a second-round TKO. When Ali and Frazier fought again on January 28, 1974, at Madison Square Garden, the fight could not be compared to their first meeting. This time Ali had worked out a strategy of clinching and keeping Frazier from being effective–he won in a 12-round decision. That same year Frazier lost his longtime trainer and friend Yank Durham when the older man suffered a massive stroke and died at the age of 52.
Ali later won the heavyweight title by defeating Foreman. The title was on the line when Ali and Frazier met again on October 1, 1975, in Manila, the Philippines. Ali had predicted an early knockout but the fight went for 15 grueling rounds that left observers breathless. The pugilists hit so hard that each sent the other’s mouthpiece flying. Frazier’s eyes swelled shut until he could not see Ali’s fists coming but he still fought on. As the bell for the fifteenth round start was about to go off, Eddie Futch threw in the towel to Frazier’s protests, saying, “Sit down, son. It’s all over. No one will ever forget what you did here today.” Ali retained the title but they both fought as true champions. Despite the seeminganimosity between the two men Ali told the press that the fight with Frazier could be compared with dying. He was reported in Sports Illustrated as saying, “I always bring out the best in the men I fight, but Joe Frazier, I’ll tell the world right now, brings out the best in me.” In November of 1996, after years of reports of Frazier harboring bad feelings about Muhammad Ali and his vilifications, Frazier publicly apologized to Ali in Jet magazine, saying, “It’s about time to bring it to an end. I’m willing to say I’m sorry if I said anything to hurt [Ali].”
In November of 1975 Frazier underwent surgery to remove a cataract on his left eye. He had developed the problem years earlier but had not wanted to have the surgery for fear it would halt his boxing career. He had been getting by with medication but by this time it was clear that without surgery he would be blind. But while the surgery removed the cataract and kept the eye from further deterioration, it was too late–he was legally blind in his left eye and now wore contacts to fight, which he did with a rematch of George Foreman in June of 1976. When the fight was stopped in the fifth round, Frazier knew his career was over.
After retiring and making the musical group a full-time venture, Frazier renamed it “Smokin’ Joe and the Knockouts” and made it an eleven-piece revue. In 1977 the group began to travel around the United States to give performances, to favorable reviews. Frazier also bought the gym he had trained in, which had been owned by Cloverlay, his management team. With the gym came several aspiring fighters that had been under contract with Cloverlay. Frazier became a manager and trainer, although the majority of training in his gym was done by Eddie Futch, George Benton, Van Colbert and Sam Hickman. It was the late 1970s and Frazier was also busy with his restaurant, “Smokin’ Joe’s Corner,” and a limousineservice.
Joe Frazier came out of retirement in December of 1981 to fight Floyd Cummings, but even though the bout was a draw he had to admit it was time to hang up the gloves for good. In 1985 Florence and Joe Frazier filed for divorce. His son, Marvis Frazier, runs the Smokin’ Joe Frazier, Inc. businesses and Frazier’s daughter Natasha assists him. Frazier is proud of all of his children, who have become successful in their own right. Joe Frazier can be proud of his own accomplishments, including boxing his way into the history books.
Philadelphia Golden Gloves novice heavyweight title, 1962; Middle Atlantic Golden Gloves heavyweight championship, 1962, 1963, 1964; Olympic gold medal in boxing 1964; heavyweight champion, NY, MA, IL, ME, 1968; World Boxing Association, heavyweight champion, 1970-73; inducted Boxing Hall of Fame, 1980.
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