GOODBYE, SMOKIN’ JOE

Joe Frazier made a public appearance at the Saratoga Race Course in August, so I was surprised when I read about two months later that he was in a hospice for the liver cancer that took his life on November 7, 2011. Memories flooded my mind because Frazier and I are from the same generation and I can vividly recall his rise to prominence and his famous bouts against Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

Frazier was a World’s Heavyweight Champion when boxing and horse racing were much bigger deals than they are today. Both sports lost out over the years to a variety of other sporting and entertainment options, largely owing to self-inflicted wounds.

In Frazier’s era, the environment surrounding a world’s heavyweight championship fight or a Triple Crown race was as electric as it gets. And champions in the ring and on the turf were widely recognized by the general public.

This was a golden age of sports that included the likes of Frazier and Ali, Vince Lombardi and Jim Brown, Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, and numerous others, as well as such equine greats as Buckpasser, Secretariat, and Forego. Kelso was going out of the limelight when Joe Frazier was coming into it.

I did not root for Smokin’ Joe in his three classic bouts with Muhammad Ali because I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and followed the hometown boxer Cassius Clay. Yet I always admired the ferocity and heart that Frazier demonstrated and thought Ali (Clay) wrongly disparaged him as a person in a successful effort to promote ticket sales by turning Frazier into a villain.

The animosity between Frazier and Ali was evidently real, however, and helped to make Howard Cosell famous. Cosell was once sitting between Frazier and Ali on a television program, interviewing them, when suddenly they went after one another and dislodged Cosell’s toupee in the process.

As a heavyweight fighter who was shy of six-feet-tall, Frazier was disadvantaged in reach against much taller opponents like Ali and George Foreman. But Frazier had a powerful build and his punches were devastating. The brutal Frazier-Ali fight known as the “Thrilla in Manila” likely did lasting damage to both men.

Ali, now severely hobbled by Parkinson’s, was a sad sight at the Frazier funeral. It was hard to watch and difficult to believe that this was the same fellow who use to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” and is one of the greatest boxers of all time. The vicious left hook that Frazier used to momentarily send Ali crashing to the canvas on his back  in round 15 of the first of their three fights–called the “Fight of the Century”–might alone have been enough to cause brain damage.

Today’s football and basketball players are generally much bigger and faster than their predecessors of 40-45 years ago. On the other hand, old-time baseball players (Bench, Clemente, Gibson and other legends) were arguably better than the current crop of players because the most gifted athletes of the day went into the then-most-lucrative sport of Major League Baseball. But there are no ifs and maybes about the boxers and racehorses of Joe Frazier’s time: they were better than the present-day crop by a country mile.

Every generation of young sports fans tends to dismiss the remembrances of older folk about the supposed superiority of the athletes of their day as being mostly nostalgia. Count me as old and nostalgic, but I really believe that the top boxers and the best racehorses of the period when Joe Frazier was in his prime would, in general, wipe the floor with the leading boxers and racehorses of the 21st century.

Today’s heavyweight champions would be hard pressed to rank in the top ten contenders in Frazier’s era. Similarly, while Zenyatta could hold her own with Ruffian, she is the exception. Imagine a contemporary colt in the same race with Damascus, Dr. Fager, and Buckpasser. Talk about choosing your poison. Sham, second banana to Secretariat, would be a sensation if he were a 3-year-old in 2011—possibly a Triple Crown winner.

Smokin’ Joe seemed to be indestructible. He could be beaten but not broken. Now this iron man from South Carolina and later South Philly is gone in his late 60s. Reminds me of the day I heard that the hulking specimen Secretariat had to be put down at a relatively young age for a breeding stallion.

Joe Frazier’s passing is a vivid reminder of a golden age in sports. Thanks, Champ, for the memories of a gallant warrior who rose from poverty to fame and asked no quarter from anyone in the ring or life.

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business

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