The 1970s was a golden age in heavyweight boxing, when Muhammad Ali was the king of kings. Despite being despised for his brashness and arrogance as a young fighter, Ali eventually became one of the most famous and beloved figures on the planet. Yet he always acknowledged that it was his hammer-and-tong battles with Joe Frazier that did the most to forge his legacy. As a result, Frazier is often relegated to being the foil who elevated his nemesis into an icon. In “Smokin’ Joe,” a comprehensive knockout of a biography, Mark Kram Jr. restores Frazier to his rightful place in the boxing pantheon.
Born in Beaufort, S.C., in 1944, Frazier was bitten by the boxing bug at a young age when his close-knit family and friends would gather at the Frazier household to watch fights on television. In the desperately poor lowlands of South Carolina, where there were no boxing clubs to cultivate an aspiring fighter’s skills, young Joe’s version of Gleason’s Gym was a rag-filled bag he jerry-rigged to a tree in his family’s backyard. From the time he was 6 years old, the future champ would pound the bag for an hour every day, Mr. Kram writes, with “his hands wrapped in socks.” By the time he was a teenager, the powerfully built Frazier was ready to rumble with anyone, black or white, at the flimsiest of slights—a dangerous tendency in the Dixie of the 1950s.
Money, opportunity—even food—were scarce for Frazier growing up. At 15, he was a high-school dropout “with no prospects of a steady job, two children on the way” by two different women “and a disposition that placed him in the crosshairs of conflict.” Mr. Kram tells us that Frazier “began looking beyond the county line for a place where he could settle down.” He moved first to New York before deciding on Philadelphia, where a number of family members already resided, and got a job working the bloody floors of a local kosher slaughterhouse. He also ballooned to 240 pounds. Eager to lose weight, in 1961 he joined the North Philadelphia Police Athletic League and once again began hitting the heavy bag.