Smokin’ Joe Frazier is one of the most iconic fighters in the history of boxing. He was the undisputed heavyweight champion from 1970-73. While also being in the famous Golden Era of heavyweights which may never be repeated.
Possibly the pinnacle of his career was the intense competition and interweaving narrative of his trilogy with none other than Muhammad Ali, widely considered the greatest boxer of all time. These iconic battles – including ‘The Fight of the Century‘ and ‘The Thrilla in Manila‘ – cemented Frazier’s legacy as one of the sport’s all-time greats.
Despite Frazier’s brilliant performance and iconic win in the first encounter with Ali. He has never received acclamation and popularity compared to his rival.
However, in this article, I want to focus on and explain Smokin Joe’s style of fighting and examine his techniques. To show you why he is one of the greatest heavyweights of all time. But why also why we should really appreciate the impact on the sport of boxing?
You can watch my video version or continue reading below:
Frazier’s background and amateur career.
Throughout the majority of his whole childhood in the 1940s and 50s, Joe worked as a farm boy in South Carolina. Which no doubt helped build up so much of his natural strength. On Friday Nights when his family would take a break from their farm duties, they would set up to watch boxing tuning in to watch Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Marciano.
One night, while watching boxing Joe Frazier’s Uncle Israel noticed his stocky build saying. “That boy there… that boy is gonna be another Joe Louis“… These words stuck with Joe as a dream to become a great boxer like Louis became clear.
Frazier would then start to practice with a homemade punching bag made from corn cobs, moss, and bricks. At the age of 15, Fraizer would leave home and eventually settle in the city of brotherly love Philadelphia which would eventually adopt Joe as one of their own.
At first, he would have to get a job in a slaughterhouse and would actually practice his jab on slaps of hanging meat (An inspiration behind the movie scene in Rocky). Eventually, Joe would find the Local Police Athletic League Gym where his amateur story would begin.
As an amateur, ‘Smokin’ Joe beat all newcomers and won the Golden Gloves three years in a row.
In 1964, he lost to Buster Mathis in the U.S. Olympic heavyweight trials controversially, but the stars were aligned for Joe as Mathis got injured and was instead called up to the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. It was here, he crushed opponents with his famous left hook. And even fractured his thumb in the semi-finals, with Frazier making it through to the finals.
Joe would go on to defeat the German Hans Huber. Winning the Olympic gold and finishing with a record of 38-2. And from watching the footage you can tell his style very much resembled what he became.
But this leads me to how Joe would fight throughout his professional career.
Joe Frazier’s Boxing Style
First up let’s touch on Frazier’s style of fighting.
Now for Smokin’ Joe, he was not the biggest heavyweight of all time. As he stood at 5’11 with a reach of 73 1⁄2 in. With many feelings, he would be too short to compete in the pros despite him winning Gold at the Tokyo Olympics.
Joe’s trainer Yank Durham saw things differently and played an integral part in developing Frazier to become one of the most dangerous and explosive heavyweights we have ever seen.
Under Durham’s tutelage, he took advantage of Frazier’s flaws. And instead looked for a way to use his natural strengths and genetics to create a pressure-swarmer style by learning how to close off the ring. Before getting to work on the inside looking to tire opponents with body shots. All with the intention of setting up his devastating signature left hook-up top which Joe threw so well.
Credit also must go to the legendary trainer Eddie Futch who was in Joe’s corner early in his career and would also become Joe’s lead trainer after Durham’s death. Helping Fraizer to add other elements including the game plan in his defining win over Ali which I’ll discuss later.
Another aspect to consider is Joe grew up idolizing Henry Armstrong, and when you consider this was one of his idols it can become evident what also inspired his own style as the similarities between the two.
But now let’s look at the individual areas and techniques of his style that made him so successful.
Pressure fighter and rhythm
Now as just mentioned before, Joe was smaller in height and reach than most opponents. So a lot of his overall game plan was to put his competitors under constant pressure, so he could close the distance. While also making them rush their work so he could get on the inside or counter them.
One of the things Frazier did so well, was to keep his opponent guessing through his use of using constant feints with his upper body, head, guard, and punches – alongside with broken rhythm. His use of feints alone helped his unpredictable rhythm that would cause much caution for his opponent in terms of what Frazier would do next.
And it was evident even from watching at the sidelines that it was hard to predict what his next move or punch would be. Many opponents even get caught with a jab or leaping hook out of nowhere as they mistimed their own punch due to the use unpredictable nature of their rhythm… When you consider his nickname was Smokin, these tactics would almost act as a smokescreen for him to apply pressure and attack.
Closing the ring off with Footwork
Another aspect that helped with his forward moment and pressure was his footwork. One is using a quick pivot with his front foot to continue his attack. While also creeping into range slowly with his front.
But interestingly he would use a lot of reversed footwork a lot of times moving his back foot first before moving onto his front foot. Mainly with the aim to help him close distance to get on inside and to put weight on his front foot so he could throw the left hook with power
Now, this isn’t something I recommend most try as you can quite often lose balance or if timed correctly can be badly hurt.
However, in the case of Joe Frazier, he got away with this most of the time due to his elite level of being able to use bob weaving so successfully. And as much as he would lose balance at times in fights as he brought his feet together.
He also did have tremendous balance when you consider considering he was changing levels with his upper body when moving forward.
This leads to what he arguably did best…
Bob and Weave explained
Now sometimes I see people refer to Frazier as having a bob weave style, but I see this as an element of his overall swarmer style to get him into position to attack or get on the inside.
By bobby and weaving, Joe could move head his both laterally and beneath incoming punches. While it also helped that he would bend his knees and use more waist movement while coming into the distance.
Fundamentally a wrong move, but he would get away with it due to his crab\cross guard blocking his head and body to stop uppercuts. Nevertheless, it would not work out against bigger stronger men such as George Foreman who was able to control it with his stiff powerful jab and arm control.
The erratic nature of him doing this even before he was in a distance to attack helped him be more unpredictable with his rhythm and attacks. And quite often he would attack using the bob and weave with the left hook. I recommend you watch some of Hanzagod’s clip below to see this in action throughout his career:
Tactics vs Ali (The Fight of the Century)
Interestingly trainer Eddie Futch explained why he trained Joe to use this:
In the first fight against Ali, this was the perfect solution against out-boxer like Ali who would like to use his jab and quick counters and combinations. As Eddie Futch explains again:
“All that bobbing and weaving dropped Joe lower and made him an even smaller target. So that meant Ali – this 6’3 fighter, dropping his right hand down to throw the uppercut – [it] would leave his right side exposed for the length of time that it would take Joe to land that devastating left hook.”– Eddie Futch
If you watch the Fight of Century or any of the other fights, you will see Joe expertly time Ali many times throughout the fight doing this. As it forced Ali to aim lower to hit the target making him more susceptible to being hit up top. And of course, Frazier was able to land one of the most famous left hooks we have ever seen.
Bob weaving really is a beautiful form of aggressive defense and offense put into one. And Joe certainly mastered this in his overall style and size. Watch the highlights from the first with Ali below to see some of this in action.
The Left Hook
Now, this leads on to more about the left hook, and obviously, as I’ve just discussed a big part of this punch was, of course, the transfer of weight onto his left using the bob and weaving motions and movement. Allowing him to throw this punch was such power.
There is a great video by former world champion Tim Witherspoon who was once taught by Frazier in his gym how to throw the left hook. Tim goes into detail on how Joe really he really emphasized on putting as much weight between the knee and ankle before twisting with the shoulder. I highly recommend you check it out below:
You can then start to understand how Joe applied it himself with his technique to generate unreal power.
Timing is everything
The other thing I love about the left hook is he rarely missed it. When he threw it he was always with the intention of landing. But it was also about timing his opponent with it after they threw a jab or if he saw their right-hand drop as I discussed earlier when he face Ali.
The other aspect of this punch was he would throw a double left beautifully by going to the body first before going up top. The perfect motto for the strategy is “Kill the body and the head will die”.
The attacks on the body would lead to the openings up top as the guard would drop. And we saw Frazier land on the likes of Ali consistently with this tactic, but my favorite has to be against Bob Foster when using this. Check out Hanzagod video of some of his best-left hooks in action:
Now the other area Joe was outstanding was his elite ability to fight on the inside. As this was where he wanted to fight you. Due to Frazier’s smaller reach and height compared to most. It was the perfect range for him to attack the body usually with right and left hooks before throwing sharp uppercuts through the guard.
Joe also heavily relied on using his head to lean on the (mainly left side) of his opponent’s shoulder to apply pressure but protect himself from the opposing hooks. He would also use his head to put pressure on their chest to either push them back or restrict them with the punches they could throw back due to the possibility of losing balance.
Frazier would also look to use arms to control and restrict his opponent to only being able to punch back with one arm. While at the same time due to his horizontal crab guard, he would use his arm to frame off opponents on the inside so he continues to get off his own punches or just continue pushing back his competitors. Now again you would also see a shift off to another angle to the side to get a better angle.
Lastly, Fraizer would continue to roll and weave on the inside. Especially incoming hooks as his anticipation was truly up there with the best. And of course, would look to counter back himself.
As someone who was inspired to start boxing because of Ali, Joe Frazier was always part of that history. But as I’ve gotten older and studied and learned more about the sweet science and history of boxing. You can’t help but truly appreciate Joe Frazier’s unique aggressive swarmer style which is something you don’t see often.
His use of constant feinting, unpredictable rhythm, and aggressive bob-weave defense tactics, and of course his deadly left hooks make me truly appreciate his achievements.
However, at the same time, I also feel bad for Joe in a way. He was the man who was always in the shadow of Ali, despite all his own triumphs. He beat ‘The Greatest‘ convincingly by being so technically sound while being so fierce.
Watching Joe Frazier is like watching poetry in motion to me. And that is why he will go down as one of the greatest heavyweights of all time.
Thank you for reading.
Check out my other boxer style analysis features here or why not look at my other analysis on the following boxing stars: