50 years ago heavyweight world champion Smokin’ Joe Frazier visited Derry and Inishowen weeks after defeating Muhammad Ali in ‘Fight of the Century’
He was a sporting legend in the making, a former Olympic Gold medallist now in his prime. His reign as World Heavyweight Champion came in a golden era of boxing greats.
But when Smokin’ Joe Frazier landed in the north west in the summer of 1971, his visit proved more of a flop than a knock out.
It was March 1971. Hollywood A-listers Dustin Hoffman, Burt Lancaster and Woody Allen were at ringside for what was dubbed the ‘fight of the century’. Fight fans crammed every corner of Madison Square Garden to watch Smokin’ Joe, who had been crowned World Champ a year earlier, beat Muhammad Ali over a gruelling 15 rounds.
Frazier’s left hook did for the previously unbeaten Ali and Smokin’ Joe stayed on top of the world.
But Joe was no one trick pony, and was well known for his love of music. Shortly after retaining his title, Smokin’ Joe and his band, The Knockouts set off for a European tour that would bring them to not too distant shores.
Only weeks after defeating Ali, on June 4, the following ad appeared in the Derry Journal: “Joe Frazier, Undisputed World Heavyweight Champion appearing with the Knockouts - Your only chance so far this century to see in person a reigning world heavyweight champion.” Smokin’ Joe, the champ turned bandsman was on his way to play two shows in the north west, appearing at the Golden Slipper in Magilligan and Carndonagh’s Lilac Ballroom on June 8.
But the man who had proved big box office in the world’s most renowned boxing arenas was not to have the same draw in the ballrooms of north west Ireland.
On June 11, 1971, the Derry Journal carried a full report of the champ’s visit under the headline ‘80 paid to see Frazier’s N.W. shows’.
“World heavyweight champion Joe Frazier’s shows at the Lilac Ballroom, Carndonagh and the Golden Slipper, Magilligan, were flops from the attendance point of view, ” the ‘Journal’ reported.
“Only 27 people turned up to see the singing boxer in the Golden Slipper and about twice that number paid to get into the Lilac to watch his show.”
Oliver Simpson, the promoter who sponsored the Lilac appearance, said that it may have been the £1.50 per ticket charge that put punters off.
“After Mr Simpson saw that he was going to have no more than the small crowd who had turned up he let the people who were outside go into the ballroom to see the show without charging them”, the ‘Journal’ continues.
The poor turnout can’t have been good for the promoter - Frazier, it is reported, was guaranteed payment of £4,000 for each performance.
“The champ arrived in Derry on Tuesday with his entourage of musicians and go-go dancers after travelling from Aldergrove airport,” the Journal reports.
Frazier had flown in from Nice, where he had been appearing the previous night.
The Journal adds: “Frazier looked fresh and presented more of his new-found pop image than of his more familiar fighting front.”
He is described as “slightly smaller in size and width than one might have expected, but he is still an impressive looking character”.
It may have been exactly three months to the day of his career defining win over Ali, since the fight of the century. It may have been the only chance to see the champ but here in the north west in the summer of ‘71, it was a no show for Smokin’ Joe.
Were you at the shows or did you meet the champ? Why not share your memories on the ‘Journal’s’ social media pages?