Boxing Clever: Marvis Frazier – In the shadow of “Smokin” Joe

This week we eschew the legends of yesteryear to focus on the unfulfilled career of Marvis Frazier.


(Photo credit: Pixabay)

Most people have probably convinced themselves that Marvis Frazier (19-2) couldn’t fight a lick. That is certainly how I remembered it. Playing peek-a-boo with Larry Holmes a few seconds before the “Easton Assassin” dropped him on his backside and summarily pounded him to defeat. Or, “Iron” Mike Tyson sparking him out with a thoroughbred uppercut to the jaw, just 15 seconds after making his acquaintance. If you include the countout, he lasted a combined full three minutes and 27 seconds with both.

That he won his other 19 contests is all but completely overshadowed by the brutal and dismantling nature of these losses. That the 19 include successes over contemporaries including the likes of: Jose Ribalta, James Tillis, Joe Bugner and future WBA champion James “Bone crusher” Smith (admittedly, a fairly fortuitous points verdict); should not be completely irrelevant. He outpointed the granite tough Ribalta and the flashy “Quick” Tillis in their primes and at a time when they were able to extend a fast developing Mike Tyson for the full set of ten rounds.

The heavyweight era

His timing was awful. If he had of arrived five or ten years later, there was a better than even chance he would have captured one of the multitude of championship belts, as the heavyweight division descended into chaos. He would have been able to call himself a champion but he still wouldn’t have been “Smokin” Joe: the legendary all-time great. A man so famous both inside and outside the boxing bubble that he could be identified without the specifics of a surname. 

Frazier Sr is locked forever into a double act with “The Greatest” Muhammad Ali, or a pugilistic trio that also includes George Foreman. We could go further and throw in Ken Norton and the aforementioned Larry Holmes. The 70s, big hair and medallion era that every boxing age that followed has been unwillingly compared to and found wanting. Perhaps, the last golden age until the next one comes along and is viewed with the same misty eyed soul train swagger.

They didn’t look so different Marvis and his Dad. Both weighed in at the lighter, smaller end of the heavyweight scale. Marvis was an inch taller with a longer reach but not possessing of his father’s same knockout power. Where that unbridled destruction comes from is anyone’s guess? The perfect harmony of harnessed ferocity, timing, technique and balance. Perhaps, learnt in the gymnasium or locked exclusively in the genes. A form of Darwinism only sparked into life when struck with the hammer of being the 12th child of dirt poor share croppers from rural South Carolina. 

Like father like son?

Frazier Jr’s childhood was relatively easy by comparison. With just 16 years between father and son he was already four years old when “Smokin” Joe won Olympic gold and still a child of 11 when he captured the richest prize in sport. But, it is no coincidence that boxing’s finest practitioners are often those that walk into a gymnasium and later a ring with absolutely nothing to lose. The dark, blistering magic of the old man’s left hook can’t be replicated or learnt. It was what it was: a triumphant consequence of nature and nurture.

For Marvis, carrying the Frazier name into the ring must have been a glorious  burden. With, Frazier Sr in the corner there is always the underlying sense that they got some things badly wrong. The 10th pro fight against Larry Holmes, then unbeaten in 44, instigated the beginning of the derailment of ambition. Even from a 35 year viewpoint it still looks a horrible matchup. Ominously, it was intended to be a title fight, but the WBC refused to sanction it due to Frazier not registering in their top ten. 

Winning the WBC version of the title five years earlier against Ken Norton; Holmes had already defended it against the likes of Tim Witherspoon, Earnie Shavers, Leon Spinks, Trevor Berbick and an aged Muhammad Ali. On paper the 34-year-old champion looked far too big a test for the 23-year-old challenger, even with his decent amateur pedigree taken into account. Prior to this Frazier’s only standout successes had been a decision victory over an already declining Joe Bugner and the youthful prospect James Broad, who had earlier vanquished him in the US Olympic trials. Broad then a hopeful 12-0 ultimately faded into similar career obscurity and ended with an unsatisfactory 23-10.

Like Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy in “On the waterfront” it could be argued that “Smokin” Joe “brought (him) along too fast”. It certainly feels that way from the cushioned position of hindsight. Frazier Sr. was criticised by observers for tinkering with his son’s style and adapting him from a range boxer to an up close and at ‘em fighter in his own image. It didn’t work and history records it in the most painful one round fashion.

Getting burnt by the “Iron”

Frazier Jr wasn’t seen again for a nearly a year when he added to his win column with a one round stoppage against a knock over opponent. Achieving consecutive victories over: Tillis, Ribalta and Smith; there was scope to write off the Holmes defeat as an early career blip. However, nearly three years and seven straight wins on from that he walked blindly into the Mike Tyson juggernaut. At this stage “Iron” Mike was still only 20, had been a pro for only 16 months but had already demolished 22 of his 24 opponents inside the distance. 

Despite the abundant evidence the Frazier team thought the Tyson fight would be little more than a routine affair. Recalling the fight years later with admirable candour Frazier Jr remarked “Tyson was just another guy that was going to be a statistic. Yeah that’s what I thought. I threw a jab, and that’s all I remember.” Helpfully, the missing memories can be filled in by “Iron” Mike “I thought he was a little reluctant about coming out (for the first bell). I saw a little hesitation. I saw him coming down, and I said, “This is the perfect time to throw the uppercut.” It was indeed the perfect punch to such an extent that Tyson remarked in his post-fight interview “”It was scary because he went down real slow. I don’t want to hurt anybody. That’s the last thing I want to do, hurt anybody.”

For Marvis Frazier this defeat was pretty much the end of the road for his boxing career. He sat it out for a year and came back to three routine if not exhilarating victories. The last of these coming in October 1988, when he called it a day for good, still aged only 28. The omens had already been set following the earlier Tyson mismatch when he remarked to the press “I’m going to take it easy, think a little bit, and see what the good Lord has for me to do. Maybe he’s trying to tell me something and I’m not listening.”

Eventually he did listen, joining the church and becoming an ordained minister. He is an active participant in the Prison Fellowship Ministries. A charity that works and provides support to prisoners, ex-prisoners, their victims and families. A sphere that outweighs the plaudits he may have gathered in the ring. 

Most critically he was able to walk away because he could. He was possessed of the options that were not available to Tyson, Holmes or even a young “Smokin” Joe. It is there in the Brownsville projects, leaving school at 13 for a dollar an hour at an Easton carwash, or working minimum wage in a Philadelphia slaughterhouse. It is these experiences and singular lack of options that derive the fine margins of success and continue to drive the lure of the squared ring. 

Marvis Frazier didn’t have it. But, he is probably wise enough to realise that at the final reckoning; he was indeed the lucky one.

What do you recall of the career of Marvis Frazier? Comment below…

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Garry White

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I am a freelance writer focusing on the very different sporting disciplines of Boxing and Cricket. I live close to London and grew up on tales of the ancients: Dempsey, Louis, Harry Greb et al. I have an avid interest in the history of the sport as well as what is happening on the current domestic and international scene.

Feel free to follow me on Twitter or get in touch with any opportunities.

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