Farewell Smokin’ Joe


by Damian O’Donnell

The headline says “When the mountain came to Muhammad”. It was 1971 in Madison Square Garden.

There’s Joe being lead to the corner by the referee. There is no discernable look on his face; it’s fixed in a deadly glaze. He’s returning to the corner like a bloke strolling home from the corner shop with the milk; job done.

There’s Muhammad on the canvas. His body is turned to one side and bent in the middle like he’s trying unsuccessfully to do a jack knife sit up. He’s leaning uncomfortably on his left elbow. His right arm is stretched out awkwardly like a counter balance for his jumbled mind, his jumbled thoughts. His legs lay out on the canvas; lifeless, useless, stunned.

But it’s the eyes that capture your attention. They appear empty. Is that fear in them? They’re half closed, confusion reigns within. What has just happened? They show the anxiety of Muhammad as he tries to lift himself off the canvas but his body will not cooperate. Is it any wonder, he’s just been hit by one of the greatest left hooks ever thrown in a boxing ring. It came in the 15th round. Boxers are usually just trying to stay upright in the 15th round. Punches like that should have left them six or seven rounds ago. But Smokin’ Joe was always a bit different.

They say the punch came from so far down it started in Louisiana. It crashed into Ali’s jaw. It put the lights out.

One monumental moment in boxing; one monumental moment in sport.

But now Smokin’ Joe is dead. Liver cancer. Not even Joe Frasier can get off the canvas for that. 


About Damian O'Donnell

I'm passionate about breathing. And you should always chase your passions. If I read one more thing about what defines leadership I think I'll go crazy. Go Cats.


  1. Great stuff, Dips.

    Not only was Frasier-Ali-Foreman one of the great eras of boxing, it was one of the great eras of sport. Period.

    It also produced some of the very best sports writing – including this (on-deadline) piece by Mark Kram for Sports Illustrated.


    The ‘Thriller from Manilla’ (along with ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’) is probably THE sporting event I would choose to witness time-travel permitting.

    Although technically Ali won that bout, you could argue both men lost it. Neither was ever the same.

  2. Richard Naco says

    Poetic tribute, Dips.

    Perfect tribute.

  3. Peter Flynn says

    Well played Dips.

    8:30pm on ESPN2: The Thriller in Manila.

    It is brutal. Really brutal.

  4. * ‘Thriller in Manilla’… bush league by me.

    And, yes PF, the doco, like the fight is brutal – and jarring if you’re an Ali fan.

  5. As always, these are moments for reflection.
    In my case I got an email this morning. It cc’d a half dozen half forgotten old school buddies. It alerted us that another colleague had, like Smokin’ Joe, succumbed to a brutal cancer this week…at a much younger age.
    As a nostalgic aside, it asked if we remembered our Polish, army cadet class teacher herding us all in to a room with a small B+W TV where we all sat on the floor transfixed by the “fight of the century”.
    I sure did. 8 March 1971. My birthday.

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