Smokin’ Joe Frazier and His Epic Rivalry with Muhammad Ali


A new biography about Joe Frazier offers a thoughtful portrait of the man whose boxing career was all but defined by his bitter rivalry with Muhammad Ali. 

Sparring with Smokin’ Joe: Joe Frazier’s Epic Battles and Rivalry with Ali, by Professor Glenn Lewis (York College, Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism), begins with a flashback to a 1980 interview Lewis did in Frazier’s North Philadelphia gym. Frazier was 36 and retired from the ring by then, but was grooming his teenage son Marvis for a boxing career. Lewis’ aim at the time was to capture Frazier and son “at a crossroads of their fighting careers and personal lives.” 

Lewis then follows Frazier as he tours the South on a sidegig as a singer with a band. What the author observes sets the stage for the book’s theme: Smokin’ Joe is warmly welcomed by crowds of affluent whites, but gets sparse turnouts and less respect from Black audiences. Frazier’s image, it seems, never recovered from Ali calling him the “White Man’s Champion.” 

Ali also labeled Frazier an Uncle Tom and even compared him to a gorilla, once saying, “He not only looks bad, you can smell him in another country!” Lewis points out the irony of Ali using “the worst kind of white supremacist slurs” to demean Frazier. After all, Ali was a hero to people of color around the world: He rejected his given name, Cassius Clay, as a “slave name,” converted to Islam, and went to jail rather than fight the white man’s war in Vietnam. When Ali was banned from boxing because of his antiwar stance, Frazier worked to have him reinstated and helped him financially. That made Ali’s attacks all the more hurtful. As a small measure of revenge, Frazier insisted on calling Ali “Clay.” 

The personal animosity only added to the perception of the Ali-Frazier relationship as one of the most intense rivalries in sports history. That rivalry included two of boxing’s most famous matches: the 1971 “Fight of the Century,” which Frazier won, and the 1975 “Thrilla in Manila,” where Ali “barely outlasted Frazier.” 

Lewis also chronicles Frazier’s son Marvis’ career, which ended with 75 wins and four defeats, and included some serious injuries, medical issues, and a bout of depression. In the end, Lewis believes Joe mismanaged his son, depriving him “of the patience and fighting style” he needed. 

Frazier grew up on a South Carolina farm, one of 13 children in a four-room shack. He practiced punching on a feed bag hung from a tree. His amateur career culminated in the 1964 Olympic gold medal for heavyweight boxing. 

Frazier’s gym, now closed, is on the National Register of Historic Places. And while the most famous statue of a boxer in Philly is of fictional Rocky Balboa, Frazier eventually got one too: a 12-foot bronze in South Philly.