The former world heavyweight title-holder was battling liver cancer

By Mike Fleeman Stephen M. Silverman
November 07, 2011 11:30 PM
Popperfoto/Getty; Inset: Sipa

Joe Frazier, the former world heavyweight boxing champion, died after a battle with liver cancer. He was 67.

Frazier, whose death was confirmed Monday by his family, had been in a Philadelphia-area hospice.

Known for his famous “Thrilla in Manila” fight in 1975 against Muhammad Ali, whom he fought three times, “Smokin’ Joe” Frazier is an inductee of both the International Boxing Hall of Fame and the World Boxing Hall of Fame.

In all, Frazier – at 5’11½ and 205 lbs., considered small for a heavywieght – won 32 fights: 27 by knockouts, losing four times (twice to Ali and also to George Foreman). Another fight ended in a draw.

When news first broke of Frazier’s cancer battle, Ali, 69, sent public prayers and well-wishes, saying, “The news about Joe is hard to believe and even harder to accept.”

Hard work was what made Frazier, PEOPLE observed in a 1985 story. Indeed some felt Joe was the real-life prototype of Rocky, Philadelphia’s fictional working-class hero. At age 18, Joe left his hometown of Beaufort, S.C. – he was the youngest of 12 children, and watched fights on TV as a kid – for Philadelphia and a $105 a week job in a slaughterhouse (from where Sulvester Stallone borrowed the idea of using a side of beef as a heavy bag).

A workout at a Police Athletic League gym in Philadelphia led to his discovery, and he turned pro in 1965 – k.o.-ing his way to 11 victories. By winter 1968, his record was 21-0.

Frazier retired in 1977 but came back for a fight (a draw) in ’81. In the mid-’80s he opened a gym is on the crumbling 2400 block in North Philadelphia.

As described by PEOPLE, the place was filled with the sharp smells of Lysol, sweat and even fear. “I’m nervous,” said a young light heavyweight about to climb into the ring with a then-41-year-old Frazier. “Don’t be nervous,” the ex-heavyweight champion told him. “Okay,” the kid corrected himself, “I’m scared to death. Yesterday you hit me with that left hook and messed me up bad.”

Frazier smiled dreamily. “It’s still there,” said the champ, flexing his fabled left hand.