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Tokyo 1964

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Joe Frazier

Joe Frazier

23/10/1964

Boxing

Buster Mathis had been picked for the US boxing team on the basis of an excellent amateur record. He was to become a very good heavyweight boxer, but not one of the greats. Fate had that in mind for others.

And so it was that Mathis broke his thumb shortly before the Olympic Games, and so his place in the team went to a reserve – Joe Frazier. The man who fate had planned for Frazer was destined for legendary status. He is now considered one of the 10 greatest heavyweights of all time, and his professional contests against Muhammad Ali and George Foreman have become some of the most discussed and written-about fights of all time. It’s hard to think of that golden era of boxing, and not think of “The Thriller in Manila”, for instance, of the much-hyped and even more applauded “Fight of the Century”.

And yet in Tokyo, Frazier was much less well-known, at least at the start. In the first round, though, he announced his intentions with a first-round knockout of Uganda’s George Oywello. His next opponent, the Australian Athol McQueen, floored Frazier in the first round, but the American recovered to stop his opponent.

By now Frazier was the only American boxer left, and in the semi-finals he came up against the towering Soviet Vadim Yemelyanov. Despite the size difference – the Russian was around 12cm taller – Frazier won by knock-out in the second round. By then, though, he had felt a tremendous pain in his left hand. Like Mathis before the Games, Frazier had a broken thumb.

He was determined to fight for gold, though. He told nobody about the injury and stepped into the ring the next day to face the German Hans Huber, a bus mechanic who had really wanted to qualify as a wrestler, in the final. The normally devastating left hook was, predictably, not as powerful, but Frazier fought cleverly, favoured his right much more than normal, and dug into his reserves of strength. He was rewarded with a 3-2 judges’ decision. The gold was his – greatness lay ahead. Six years later, he was world champion.

Discover the best photos of Tokyo 1964

  • Vyacheslav Ivanov - 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games

    1964 Tokyo - Vyacheslav Ivanov (URS) 1st, on the top, and HILL Achim (EUA) 2nd. © 1964 / IOC

  • Opening Ceremony Tokyo 1964

    Yoshinori Sakai has lit the Olympic cauldron

    ©IOC

  • Opening Ceremony Tokyo 1964

    Yoshinori Sakai, the last torchbearer, stands next to Greek actress Aleka Katseli at a rehearsal prior to the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games

    ©Central-Press

  • Larisa Latynina (USSR)

    Larisa Latynina, with a bronze medal around her neck, on the third step of the podium after the beam competition of the Tokyo 1964 OG. On the top step is Czechoslovakia’s Vera Caslavska, while Tamara Manina (USSR) stands on the second step

    ©IOC

  • Yoyogi National Gymnasium

    An aerial view of the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, circa 1965. Designed by Kenzo Tange to house the swimming and diving events in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, it is now a major venue for basketball and ice hockey. (Photo by Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

  • Anton Geesink

    Dutch judo champion Anton Geesink arrives back in his home town of Utrecht after winning the gold medal in the open event at the Tokyo Olympics, 6th November 1964. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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