Sunday, November 10, 2013

Smokin’ Joe in Tokyo

Joe Frazier soon established himself as the best amateur heavy weight in Philadelphia.  Since Frazier was under 6’ tall, he couldn’t dance and jab like taller fighters.  He had to bore in and pummel his opponents’ midsections until he saw an opening for a left hook to the jaw.  In 1964 his manager, Yancey Durham commented that, when Frazier threw a combination, it was as if his gloves were smoking and that’s how Frazier got the nickname, Smokin’ Joe.  By early 1964, Joe Frazier had established such a fearsome reputation, that he was invited to participate in the United States Olympic trials where he cut a swath through the opposition and reached the finals.  His opponent in the final match was a man named Buster Mathis, who was about 4 inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than Frazier, and was known by the nickname, the Dancing Bear.  Mathis had heard all about Joe’s reputation for launching devastating body blows and had taken precautions.  Years later, Joe commented with complete disgust, “Mathis had his trunks pulled up to his titties!” (I wouldn't have blamed him if he tried to hold the hem of his trunks between his teeth!).  Early in the fight, Frazier landed a punishing blow to Mathis’s midsection and the referee penalized him a point for hitting below the belt.  Frazier was infuriated and disgusted that he lost the three-round decision and was ready to go back to Philadelphia.  Yancey Durham, however, encouraged him to make the trip to the Tokyo Olympics as an alternate because “you never can tell.”  Once Mathis and Frazier got to Tokyo, they established themselves as the pugilistic equivalent of the grasshopper and the ant.  Mathis developed a reputation for running a minute or two and then saying, “I’ll catch up with you guys later.”  Frazier, on the other hand, ran hard every morning and made himself available to any other fighter who wanted to spar.  Even wearing 16-ounce gloves, nobody ever took him up on the offer twice.

Then fate took a hand. Mathis broke his hands in a training session and Joe Frazier stepped up.

In his first bout, Frazier fought a Nigerian.  Less than midway through the first round, Frazier hit the Nigerian with the left hook and he went down for a 10 count.

In his second bout, he fought an Australian boxer who was several inches taller and about 30 pounds heavier.  In the first round, the Aussie hit Frazier with a very solid right and Frazier hit the deck.

 Unfortunately for the Aussie, he got back up again.  In the second round, he landed a left hook and the Aussie did not beat the count.

In the semi-final bout, his opponent was a Russian.  Again, he was facing a fighter far taller and far heavier than him.  Joe was getting the better of the fight in the third round and landed a great left hook and he felt a sharp pain in his left thumb.  Frazier won the decision and later visited a Japanese doctor (*not* the U.S. Olympic squads physician) and the doctor told him he’d broken his left thumb.  I don’t think anybody could have blamed Joe Frazier if had simply announced that he had a broken thumb and he could have gone home with a silver medal.  Joe Frazier however was made out of very tough stuff.  He wrapped his thumb up and climbed into the ring with a German fighter, again, far taller and far heavier than he.  By this time, that German had heard all about Joe’s awesome left hook.  I've seen clips of that bout.  The German spent a great deal of time moving to his left to avoid Frazier’s hook.  Frazier fought the gold-medal bout one-handed landing some punishing right hands and feinting with his left.  At the end of the bout, Frazier learned that he earned a very narrow 3 to 2 decision and he took his Olympic gold medal home to Philadelphia.  Things were still tough for Joe and his family.  Word got out that he couldn't even afford Christmas for his kids, so Philadelphia fight fans took up a collection for him.  Shortly thereafter, Joe Frazier turned pro and his fortunes and finances were going to take a dramatic turn for the better.

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