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.