Diagnosed with liver cancer in September 2011, former Olympic Gold Medalist and Undisputed World Heavyweight Boxing Champion “Smokin’ Joe” Frazier passed away on November 7th, 2011. Rated among the greatest heavyweights of all time by the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO), Frazier was a bull in and out of the ring.
Gifted with a relentlessness rarely seen, Joe Frazier embraced a philosophy “that one must absorb punishment before one can properly distribute it.” This philosophy shaped Joe Frazier’s fighting style, one of all out aggression and relentless pressure that would allow him to win 32 of 37 career fights. Well, that and his signature left hook.
“Joe Frazier would come out smoking. If you hit him, he liked it. If you knocked him down, you only made him mad.” -George Foreman
When it comes to Joe Frazier, nothing inspires me more than his heart and determination. One of the best stories to showcase his heart happened when he won the USA’s only Olympic boxing gold medal at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. Taken from his Wikipedia page:
“At the boxing event, Joe knocked out George Oywello of Uganda in the first round, then knocked out Athol McQueen of Australia 40 seconds into the third round. He was then into the semi-final, as the only American boxer left, facing the 6 foot 4, 230 lb Russian Vadim Yemelyanov.
My left hook was a heat-seeking missile, careening off his face and body time and again. Twice in the second round I knocked him to the canvas. But as I pounded away, I felt a jolt of pain shoot through my left arm. Oh damn, the thumb.” Joe would say. Joe knew immediately the thumb of his left hand was damaged, though he wasn’t sure as to the extent. “In the midst of the fight, with your adrenaline pumping, it’s hard to gauge such things. My mind was on more important matters. Like how I was going to deal with Yemelyanov for the rest of the fight.” Fortunately, there was no rest of the fight. The Russian’s handlers decided their man had no chance, and threw in the towel. At 1:49 in the second round, the referee raised Joe’s injured hand in victory.
Now that Joe was into the final, he didn’t mention his broken thumb to anyone. He went back to his room and soaked his thumb in hot water and Epsom salts. “Pain or not, Joe Frazier of Beaufort, South Carolina, was going for gold.” Joe proclaimed. Joe would fight a 30-year-old German mechanic named Hans Huber, who failed to make it on the German Olympic wrestling team. By now Joe was used to fighting bigger guys, but he was not used to doing it with a damaged left hand. When the opening bell sounded on fight night, Joe came out and started winging punches; he threw his right hand more than usual that night. Every so often he’d used his left hook, but nothing landed with the kind of impact he managed in previous bouts. Under Olympic rules, 5 judges judge a bout, and that night three voted for Joe.
Its no surprise Joe Frazier won that medal with a broken left thumb. His dream wasn’t to win an Olympic gold medal though. That was just a stepping-stone along the way. Joe Frazier’s dream was to be Boxing’s Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World. A year after winning the gold medal in Tokyo’s Summer Olympics, Joe Frazier turned pro in 1965 despite learning he had cataracts in his left eye, causing him to be visually impaired. As his broken left thumb would not hold him back in the Olympics, he would not allow his lack of vision to stand in the way of his ultimate dream either. After turning pro he subsequently won his next 24 fights to see his dream come true, winning the WBA Heavyweight Championship Belt by defeating then Champion Jimmy Ellis in 1970.
The win was not without controversy, however.
There’s a famous saying that states: “In order to be the champion, you have to beat the champion”, and few believed Jimmy Ellis was the true champion. This occurred because Jimmy Ellis had not beaten the previous champion, Muhammad Ali. Ellis won the belt during the WBA elimination tournament, a tournament formed to determine whom the new champion would be after the belt was vacated by Muhammad Ali in 1967 when Ali was stripped of his belt for refusing to be inducted into the military during the Vietnam War. It was during this tournament that Ellis would win the belt, and eventually lose it to Joe Frazier. Many still thought of Ali as the true champion, so a fight between Frazier and Ali was imminent.
Touted as “The Fight of the Century”, the two finally met inside the ring on March 8th, 1971 at the legendary Madison Square Garden Arena in New York City. Frazier would go on to win a unanimous decision handing Ali the first defeat of his career. The too would fight two more times, with the last being on October 1st, 1975 in the “Thrilla in Manila.” The fight would go on to become known as arguably the greatest heavyweight bout in boxing history, both fighters near death by the end. Ali would go on to be victorious.
Joe Frazier would retire two fights later.
So what can we learn from Joe Frazier?
We can learn to follow our dreams. We can learn to become relentless in that pursuit. We can learn to develop a bull-like stubbornness, and not let irrelevant obstacles stand in our way of seeing these dreams come true. As Joe Frazier has shown, you can still win the Olympic gold medal in boxing with a broken thumb, or the heavyweight championship of the world while visually impaired. Things we perceive as obstacles are rarely that, and more so merely obstacles created in our mind to hold us back out of fear.
We can learn to develop our heart and determination. We can learn to persevere through adversity. “Every path has its puddles.” We can learn that “nobody can escape death, but everybody can live life.”
But if there’s one lesson that stands above all, it is this:
“The biggest lesson that we can learn from death is to truly live. Fall in love with your time on earth.”