Smokin' Joe Frazier wins gold with a broken thumb

American boxer Joe Frazier fells his Soviet opponent Vadim Yemelyanov in the Olympic Super Heavyweight Boxing semi-final at the Korakuen Ice Palace during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, 21st October 1964. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
American boxer Joe Frazier fells his Soviet opponent Vadim Yemelyanov in the Olympic Super Heavyweight Boxing semi-final at the Korakuen Ice Palace during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, 21st October 1964. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

In October 1964, Tokyo hosted their first Olympic Games. To celebrate, Tokyo 2020 will bring you some of the most incredible and historic moments that took place 56 years ago. In the first of the series, we take a look at Joe Frazier’s remarkable heavyweight boxing gold.

The background

Joe Frazier is a boxing legend. He held the undisputed world heavyweight title between 1970 and 1973 and fought some of the most memorable duels in the sport’s history, including a trilogy against the great Muhammad Ali and two fights against the fearsome George Foreman - both of whom had been Olympic gold medallists in their own rights.

But while Smokin' Joe would go on to have a glittering career, he almost didn’t get the chance to enjoy the moment of Olympic glory that would kick-start his journey to the top of the boxing world.

Having enjoyed a fine amateur career that included three Golden Gloves championship victories, Frazier entered the Olympic trials for Tokyo 1964 as one of the favourites. But in the finals he came up against 19-year-old Buster Mathis, a bulking heavy-set brawler who weighed in at 295 pounds - almost 100 more than Frazier.

Frazier, at 5'11" and still growing into his future frame, looked more like a cruiserweight as he stepped into the ring against his formidable opponent. And sure enough, after a three-round bout in which Frazier was out-muscled, out-weighed and, surprisingly, out-boxed, Mathis was awarded the win and with it a place on Team USA at the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games.

So when Frazier did travel to Tokyo it was as an alternate - on standby in case something should happen to his teammate. And, as fate would have it, that something did happen, as Mathis injured his knuckle in training.

Frazier took his place on the team and the rest, as they say, is history.

The moment

Throughout his career, it’s safe to say nothing came easy to Frazier. Even his journey to the Olympics had been a difficult one, as he took a back door route into the greatest sporting event on earth.

But when it came to the boxing, Frazier was a fearsome competitor and he began his Olympic campaign in style. He won his first bout against Uganda’s George Oywello by first-round knockout, following it up with a quarter-final knockout win against Australia’s Athol McQueen. However, the fight against McQueen wasn’t all smooth sailing. The Australian pugilist handed Smokin’ Joe the first knockdown of his career in the first round of the fight.

In a recent interview, the then 73-year-old McQueen declared: “If I’d known what I know now I would have sat on him and wouldn’t have let him up.”

Unfortunately for McQueen, Frazier did get up and went on to stop him in a one-sided contest.

"My only problem was that I didn't hit him hard enough. He came good, and gave me a belting before he went on to win the gold medal," McQueen told The Australian following Frazier’s death in 2011.

Now into the semi-finals, Frazier faced off against the formidable Soviet opponent, Vadim Yemelyanov. Frazier disposed of his challenger in his usual devastating style, ending the bout with a barrage of unanswered punches that saw the referee step in to stop the fight.

But after leaving the ring, Frazier felt a searing pain in his left thumb. Instead of seeking medical help, he soaked his thumb in cold water to numb the pain. It was later discovered that his thumb was broken - but not before Frazier would fight for gold in the greatest amateur boxing event on earth - the Olympic Games heavyweight final.

Unlike his first three opponents, and perhaps due to the injury he was carrying, Frazier did not win the final by knockout. He avoided throwing his trademark left hooks and concentrated on breaking down his opponent with his right. In the end, he despatched of the German boxer, Hans Huber - a bus mechanic who had wanted to compete as a wrestler - by three-round decision, eventually taking the title with a 3-2 points victory.

Olympic gold belonged to Frazier and only six years later he would become world heavyweight champion.

In a title fight at Madison Square Gardens, New York, Muhammad Ali goes down in the 15th round to a left hook from world heavyweight champion Joe Frazier who kept the title with an unanimous points win. Cameramen are crowded round the ring.  (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
In a title fight at Madison Square Gardens, New York, Muhammad Ali goes down in the 15th round to a left hook from world heavyweight champion Joe Frazier who kept the title with an unanimous points win. Cameramen are crowded round the ring. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

What happened next

Frazier went on to become one of the most celebrated boxers of all times, and the Olympic Games represented the beginning of that journey. Following his 2011 death from liver cancer, Frazier was described by Team USA head coach, Joe Zanders, as “One of the guys that set the standards in boxing”. His ability to rise above adversity also led Zanders to state, “He boxed in an era of much bigger guys, more athletic. But nobody had the heart of Joe Frazier”.

In 1970, Frazier won the world boxing title with a fifth round TKO win over the WBA champion Jimmy Ellis, after the latter’s trainer - the legendary Angelo Dundee - refused to let him return to the ring following two viscous fourth round knockdowns.

The following year, in a bout dubbed the ‘Fight of the Century’, Frazier handed the great Muhammad Ali the first defeat of his career by winning a unanimous 15-round decision. He went on to amass a 29-0 record, before succumbing to 1968 Olympic Champion George Foreman in 1973.

Two more fights with Ali cemented Frazier’s legacy, including the legendary Thrilla in Manila - one of the most celebrated bouts in boxing history.

Frazier would finally hang up his gloves in 1976 after a second loss to Foreman, returning to the ring for one single fight in 1981 when he drew a 10 round battle against Floyd “Jumbo” Cummings.

But it all started on the day he travelled as a reserve to the scene of next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo. When asked in a 2004 interview what had happened to his gold medal, Frazier answered:

“I had my Olympic gold medal cut up into eleven pieces. Gave all eleven of my kids a piece.”