Smokin’ Joe Frazier

People are dying all around us. I think that as we age, we notice death more, and perhaps we feel closer and in more depth with the accomplishments of the deceased.  Breaking news today- Smokin’ Joe Frazier soon to die in hospice with advanced liver cancer. His obit will recognize his career and probably mention him as a reference point for Muhammad Ali.  But Frazier is infinitely more fascinating.

A perusal of his obit by a younger person would not recreate the same vibe as it does in someone that watched Joe punish Ali in real time as I did as a third year medical student on a black and white TV in the call room at Herman Tallmadge Memorial Hospital.

If you watch the HBO special- The “Thrilla in Manila” (on most premium channel respoitories), it details the three bouts between Ali and Frazier said by many to be the greatest fights of all time. It all came back to me.

To set the stage, in 1971, the first confrontation between Ali and Frazier began with a self-assured Ali taunting his laconic opponent in a jocular fashion, but ended with a brutal left hook flooring an astonished Ali. Then came the grudge match of all time on October 1, 1975.  Near the end of the 14th round, the pugilists were completely spent, able to stand only by sheer force of will and refusal to give up.  At this point virtually everyone involved was calling to stop the fight before one of the pugilists was killed. One of the referees later said he had witnessed eight ring deaths in his career and every one was identical to the scenario in the ring for the 14th round in Manilla.

Unknown to the Frazier team, the ringside camera showed Ali was held upright by his handlers and everyone in that corner recalls Ali begging “cut off the gloves” (stop the fight).  In the other corner, Frazier was functionally blind from swelling and bleeding over both eyes and intermittently unresponsive. Mercifully, Frazier’s ring man Eddie Futch stopped the fight before the 15th round bell. Frazier weakly protested. Futch is said to have replied, “It’s over. No one will forget what you did here today.  Had the 15th round commenced, it is highly likely that one or both fighters would have died that night. Decision was given to Ali (and remains controversial today).

When he speaks in the interview, one can easily discern the long term effects of repeated brain trauma on Frazier. One of the final frames of the documentary shows Joe watching the film of the fight and re-living it in ways the rest of us can only imagine. His facial expression is worth downloading the HBO Documentary.

When it comes, a four-paragraph obit of Smokin’ Joe is a pale horse in the distance.  One doesn’t really absorb the passions, joys and measures of a person until you remember their glory from the perspective of approaching their nadir yourself.


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