Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The final 10 count for Smokin' Joe

There was a sense of sadness last night when I heard of the death of former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier, a victim of liver cancer at the age of 67. Not only was he among the best heavyweight fighters ofall-time (easily in the top 10), but he was part of a generational chnge in American sport - one which I witnessed.
Employing a style of always coming forward, brawling all the time and with a devestating left hook (the one that floored Muhammad Ali in the 1971 fight was delivered from behind Frazier's back and struck the enigmatic Ali unlike any other punch during his career), Frazier became entangled in one of this country's seminal sporting events of all time.
The March 8, 1971 bout might have been THE Fight of the Century between the two undefeated champions. Ali represented rebellion/defiance while Frazier was cast (not by his choice) the establishment. In truth, they were just prizefighters, facing each other at a moment of truth.
In 1971, such events were not shown over today's pay-per-view system, seeing it in the comfort of one's living room. It was closed circuit television in arenas, theaters and concert halls. The technology was still fairly rough; the images often were not as sharp as one expected. But you got to see it live - as history was unfolding.
I think I spent $5 (a tidy sum in 1971) on a cold Monday night in Ann Arbor, sitting in Crisler Arena with two dormmates (Jeff Hirsh and Merrick Schneider), glued to each round. And when the punch from nowhere struck Ali in the 15th and final round, we leaped out of our seats in shock and amazement. The long walk back to our dorm was filled with nothing but adrenalin-fueled talk about what we had seen.
Two years later, I actually interviewed Ali, in Ann Arbor, when he covertly visited a doctor following his first Ken Norton fight, when Ali suffered a broken jaw. Another life-long highlight not to be forgotten.
Sadly, as the years have passed, most sports fans have failed to acknowledge the greatness of Joe Frazier, out of South Philadelphia. He only lost to two men - Ali and George Foreman - twice each. He may well be best remembnered for Howard Cosell's call of his first battle with Foreman when the Texan's punches sent Fraizer to the canvas, with Cosell shouting, "Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!" It is NOT how the man should be remembered.
For a period of five years, he WAS the toughest man on the planet, the king of the ring and held a title only a few in the history of sports could claim - THE heavyweight champion of the world!
God rest his soul!

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