If Joe Frazier had made half as many mistakes in his 16-year pro boxing career as he has made while managing his son's fledgling career, he never would have gotten off the undercard, let alone attained the lofty status of undisputed heavyweight champion. Passing over the most obvious of Frazier's errors—sending his inexperienced son Marvis in to be destroyed by WBC heavyweight champ Larry Holmes in less than one round last Friday at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas—his most glaring misstep was his decision in November 1980 to fire George Benton as Marvis' trainer and replace him with none other than Joe Frazier. Marvis is a tall (6'1") and slender (200 pounds) boxer, a splendid blend of speed, defense and combination punching. He was, that is, until his father ordered him to forget all that sissy stuff.
Smokin' Joe won the heavyweight title in 1968 with an aggressive bobbing and weaving style that got him sufficiently close to his opponent to unload a hook powerful enough to rearrange the ribs of a rhino. He demanded no less assertive an approach from the Bible-reading, 23-year-old Marvis, who, as a puncher, couldn't knock down the price of a sarape in a Tijuana flea market.
It was pointed out to the elder—39, just five years older than Holmes—Frazier that while he's built like a tree stump. Marvis is constructed more like a sapling. "Size don't mean nothin'," Joe retorted. "It's like a bee. A bee ain't built big but it still puts knots in your bull."
In the other camp, trainer Eddie Futch was worried: not for Holmes's well-being, but for that of Marvis, who was six when Futch met him. Futch, 72, trained the senior Frazier for all 12 of his title fights, and he was the man who forced the nearly blind Frazier to remain in his corner after the 14th round of the 1975 Thrilla in Manila against heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali.
"Marvis has a lot of athletic ability," Futch said. "What's the hurry to fight for the championship? If he gets destroyed now, and he could very well be destroyed, it could even end his career."
Sure, Marvis was undefeated in 10 pro fights, but since concluding a year-long bout with viral hepatitis in 1982, he'd fought only 27 rounds. And he had never fought a quality opponent. Over that same period, Holmes fought 68 rounds, all of them in title defenses, while running his record to 44-0. The fight seemed like a classic mismatch.
The attractiveness of the bout wasn't enriched when José Sulaimàn, the generalissimo of the World Boxing Council, decreed that he would not recognize it as Holmes's 17th defense of his WBC title. It was rumored that Sulaimàn would have sanctioned the fight if Frazier, should he have won, had given the option on his first title defense to promoter Don King. But since the rumor was vehemently denied by all parties involved there's no sense in repeating it
Then Smokin' Joe committed his final error. He made Holmes angry. Among other things, Joe said: "Larry makes too many mistakes. He used to work with me sparring, and I set him down every day. Guess he got tired of that because, as I remember, he took his money and went home."
Then Joe took off on Futch, saying, "He never did nothin' for me except collect 15 percent of my purse. Futch can't train nobody. He was just there to wipe me down."
Well-tuned at 219 pounds, Holmes listened and smoldered. "I always liked Joe," he said. "Out of sentiment I told Joe not to let Marvis get hurt, because I'm going to try and kill him. In this fight I'm going to go crazy. I'm not going to win any popularity contest; I'm just going to go out there to take Marvis' head off."
It was of little help to Marvis that the fighters' dressing rooms were separated only by a thin wall. Holmes listened intently to the noise coming from the other room: "Woof. Woof. Holmes is going to fall. What time is it? It's KO time." Then there was a chorus of imitated barking.
Holmes looked at his lawyer. Charles Spaziani. "Get the mitts." he growled. "I want to get it ready."
Spaziani put on two catcher-size mitts and held them up. Quickly, Holmes slammed home four hard right hands.
"It's ready." he said.
Early in the first round, Frazier dropped his hands and mocked Holmes, at which point the 6'3" Holmes grabbed the 6'1" Frazier high on both shoulders, picked him up and hurled him against the ropes. "I just wanted to teach him sonic respect." Holmes said later.
Just past the two-minute mark. Holmes fired a jab and crossed with a crackling right that caught Frazier flush in the face. The challenger fell on the seal of his bizarre green and gold-threaded Bermuda shorts-like trunks. He was up at the count of eight, and a moment later Holmes was on hint, driving him back into his own corner.
Holmes battered him with right hands, and then after each of three rights he motioned for Referee Mills Lane to stop the fight. Lane stayed put, and Holmes said to himself, "The hell with it." He hurled six more thunderous rights, and then, just as Lane moved in to stop it at the 2:57 mark, he fired a left hook to the body.
The following morning, Holmes, his anger abated, said he was now in a state of semiretirement. "One more fight." he said, ignoring a mandatory defense against Greg Page, for which he has already signed a contract. "Gerrie Coetzee [the WBA champion from South Africa]. For $100 million, and every minute they wait the price is going up. I'll fight him anyplace. For $100,000,027,54. I'll even fight him in his house. For $100,000,068,21."
Then he turned to Marvis, who was sitting nearby. "And don't you be in a hurry." he said kindly. "Do what I did: wait for everybody to get old. I waited for your dad to retire, and for Ali to get old. Then I made my move. All you got to do is be patient like I was."
Smokin' Joe nodded. "That sounds like good advice from the champ." he said. He's learning.