Remembering a lesser-known Frazier fight
For most boxing fans, the death of Joe Frazier on Monday brought to mind his stirring trilogy of bouts with Muhammad Ali, the first and third of which rank among the greatest in modern ring history.
They were absolutely riveting, and I well remember gaping in slack-jawed awe in the ballroom of the Eagles Club on 24th and Wisconsin Avenue, where the fights were broadcast on closed-circuit TV in those pre-pay-per-view days.
But the first thing I thought of when the news came of Frazier's death from cancer was George Raft "Scrapiron" Johnson. He was a 5'9", 210-pound trial-horse who feared no one.
His career record was an unimpressive 20-21-4, but as Johnson told me in a 1996 interview for a story in The Ring magazine, "When (people) saw 'Scrap Fighting Tonight' in the paper, they didn't care if I win, lose or draw. They just knew I'd put on a good show."
Scrapiron fought Frazier on May 4, 1967, in front of more than 9,000 fans at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. Frazier, 23, was undefeated, and that huge left hook had knocked out 13 of the 14 guys he'd beaten as a pro. The odds were 10-1 that the fight would end with Johnson on his back.
Seeing a golden opportunity, Scrapiron devised a way to keep his head attached to his neck after Smokin' Joe hit it with that deadly left hook. He found himself a 40-pound chunk of cement. Then he fashioned a large sling, put in the chunk of cement, and wore it around his forehead when he did roadwork every morning before the fight.
The referee gave Scrapiron only three of the 10 rounds, one judge gave him two, and the other judge said Johnson hadn't won a single round against Frazier in their fight. But even before the decision was announced, Johnson danced around the ring, pumping his fists and celebrating like he'd just won the heavyweight title.
"We all looked at each other," remembered one of Johnson's friends who was there, "and wondered, 'What's with him?'"
The answer came four days later when Scrapiron rolled up to the Hoover Street Gym in a brand new Cadillac, wearing a shiny new suit and derby hat, with a fat cigar in his mouth.
He'd been guaranteed a purse of $8,000 for the Frazier fight.
"I took two grand," he told his stunned audience at the gym, "and laid it on me to go the distance."
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