By Thomas Gerbasi
The eulogies rolled in for Joe Frazier, even before he lost his fight with an opponent that was the only one immune to his deadly left hook – liver cancer.
The boxing Hall of Famer and former world heavyweight champion was under hospice care for the disease, which was discovered within the last five weeks, and when the news of his illness broke over the weekend, and his subsequent death on Monday at the age of 67, it set a pall over the boxing world, and for good reason, considering the effect “Smokin’ Joe” had on the sport.
Yet for many of us, Frazier was more than the iconic figure who engaged in two of the greatest bouts of all-time, his first and third battles with Muhammad Ali.
For colleagues who had the honor of covering his 11 year pro career (he did finish up with a 1981 bout against Jumbo Cummings five years after his initial retirement), Frazier was everyman, a no nonsense, straight shooter who fought and spoke from the heart.
For me, he was an almost constant companion in a way few would be able to relate to. See, back on 11th Avenue in Brooklyn in the late 70’s and early 80’s, every night was the ‘Thrilla in Manila’. My mother probably still goes to bed at night with the sound of clicking in her head as she recalls her soon to be teenage son re-enacting the legendary trilogy between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali – daily – with the Mego action figure and ring set bearing Ali’s name.
His opponent in the set was just called “his opponent,” but with Frazier on the cover of the set and with the blue shorts he wore in the “Thrilla in Manila,” it was “Smokin’ Joe” to me, despite many claiming it was Ken Norton.
Regardless, the ‘Click-click’s were all you heard from my room as the plastic recreations of Ali and Frazier slammed against each other. ‘Click-click’, Frazier is down. He’s up. Ali is down.
I’ve still got the Frazier and Ali action figures (don’t you dare call them dolls), and while they’ve been beaten beyond recognition, I’ve kept them, broken arms and legs, ripped trunks, re-painted and stained with fake vampire blood faces and all.
So when a documentary was airing on Frazier in 2005 and the opportunity came up to speak with him, I didn’t hesitate to respond to the email offering the interview. That didn’t mean I wasn’t shaking in my boots before making the phone call. It wasn’t the usual butterflies when speaking to a high-profile personality. These were eagles swimming around in my stomach simply because this wasn’t any fighter, any champion, or any Hall of Famer.
This was Joe Frazier.
And to my credit or embarrassment, whatever the case may be, I told Joe of the nightly reenactments of his most famous bouts, and wondered what it was like to be able to turn adults into nervous pre-teens again.
“I don’t want to be duckin’ and dodgin’” he said. “I like to let people know that even though once I was a younger champion, right now that I’m an older guy, I like to mingle. I love the world and the good man put us here to love one another and to give to one another whenever they need. That don’t mean grab a bag and give ‘em some money, but I’m talking about helping the people who are really in need.”
And for the longest time, that’s what Frazier did, whether it was with an encouraging word, a handshake, a conversation, or through his work at his (now closed) Joe Frazier’s Gym in Philadelphia, where he was never afraid to put his cane to the side and show the young kids a thing or two.
“Trust me, I can get out there and protect myself if I have to, but I don’t want to do that,” he said in 2005. “But it gives them a little more inspiration when I show them that what I’m saying is the truth, and that it has to be done this way in order for you to get the job done.”
Time wasn’t kind to the South Carolina native, with cancer just being the latest in a line of ailments such as cataracts, arthritis, and high blood pressure, but you never heard him cry ‘woe is me’ about his lot in life. That’s because Frazier was simply a man’s man, someone who did his job, did it well, and never looked for the pat on the back.
For proof, just look at his fight tapes. There was no feeling out, no dancing, and no hugging when Frazier got to smokin’. Over the course of his career, Frazier compiled a 32-4-1 record with 27 knockouts, with his only losses coming to two men – Muhammad Ali and George Foreman - even though Frazier laughed when he referred to the second Ali fight (which he lost via decision in 1974), “the judges said I lost to Muhammad, but I guess they were a little handicapped – they couldn’t see.”
Needless to say, talking to Frazier was like talking to a living, breathing history book, one that not only gave insight into his spectacular career and his role in some of the most memorable moments in the sport, but into life in a time before Twitter, Facebook, and 10 million cable channels per household. And he never forgot those roots.
“My family came from the old time religion in the South, where we had one loaf of bread that we shared with 13, 14 people that lived in that house,” recalled Frazier. “That’s the real deal, and what has to be done, as a man, by someone who’s made something, is to give something back to the neighborhood.”
That neighborhood is in the City of Brotherly Love, his home since he was 15, and a place that he is synonymous with. So if you’re a fighter from Philadelphia, that’s the legacy you need to live up to. You can’t quit, you can’t give an inch, and you can’t back down. You fight until you just can’t fight anymore. That’s a Philly fighter, and that’s Joe Frazier.
That’s not to mean it was always all business with Frazier, a man who liked to mingle and meet the people and who also loved to sing.
“It was something in my life all along,” said Frazier of singing and performing. “We came from a very religious family. If you didn’t sing on Sunday, when you got back to the house, Mom would want to know why. And she kept a switch in corner. ‘Why you can’t sing? You think you’re better than anybody else?’ ‘No, mom, I…” schhwupp. ‘You gonna sing next Sunday?’ Yes maam.”
With this type of no-nonsense upbringing, Frazier, one of 11 children, grew up tough. Pounding a homemade punching bag made of corn cobs, moss and bricks couldn’t possibly soften him up either. At 15, he made the trek from South Carolina to Philadelphia, where he began, not only boxing, but working at a slaughterhouse. As he trained, he hit slabs of beef during work hours, and did his roadwork through the city streets, culminating with a trip of the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Sound familiar? It should if you’re a movie fan, but unfortunately the only tribute to a fighter in Philly is to the fictional Rocky Balboa, and not the true fistic hero of the city. And frankly, that’s a disgrace.
Frazier won a Gold Medal in the 1964 Olympics, fighting with a broken thumb, and as a pro he walked through all competition, taking the heavyweight title vacated by the exile of Muhammad Ali in the process. All the while, he made his way through the fight game with one undeniable equalizer – his left hook. Delivered with speed, precision, and thudding power, whether he tapped you with it once or a hundred times, you were going to remember it forever.
“It’s something that was there, and I also looked at a guy like Henry Armstrong,” said Frazier of his trademark punch. “Armstrong would throw 100 punches or more in a round. I used to watch him, and Yank (Durham, Frazier’s trainer) told me, ‘Your defense is your offense; keep him duckin’ and dodgin’ and tryin’ to hold on. Don’t try to clinch – throw punches. Let him worry.’”
Citing the greats (Armstrong, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Ezzard Charles), Frazier, even though he was in his early sixties at the time of the interview, still sounded in awe of these legends. It’s the way today’s fighters should speak of fighters like Frazier, but unfortunately a lot of contemporary boxers have short memories.
“These young guys don’t take the time and watch what’s going on,” said Frazier. “And sometimes the trainers don’t do it either. But that’s what my trainer used to do. Yank would say, ‘I want you to watch Armstrong, Louis, Ezzard Charles, Rocky Marciano, and you make sure you see what they’re doing.’”
Frazier learned his lessons well, and when it came to big fights, there was none bigger than Frazier-Ali I on March 8, 1971. Aptly titled ‘The Fight of The Century’, the bout between the two undefeated heavyweights stopped the world for one magical night.
“The part about stopping the world, I didn’t pay one ounce of attention to that,” said Frazier. “My job was to watch him (Ali), and figure out what he was doing, otherwise he was gonna wrap me up and throw me away. I didn’t focus on all the great entertainers that were there or on the crowd – some of them were with me, some of them with him. My job was to concentrate on what Yank told me in the corner and to get the job done.”
Frazier, who dropped Ali in the 15th round en route to a decision win, always remembered the key moments of his crowning victory fondly.
“In the sixth round, I dropped my hands and told him ‘Sucka, it’s the sixth round and I ain’t stopped yet,’” said Frazier, referring to Ali’s pre-fight boast that he would stop the champion in six rounds. “Then I pulled him off the ropes and laughed at him.”
And even when Ali’s antics and underrated toughness started to chip away at Frazier’s concentration, Durham quickly reeled his charge back in.
“Muhammad shook his head when I hit him with three or four hooks, telling me that he’s all right,” said Frazier. “I went back to the corner and I said ‘Yank, is this guy out of his mind? Is he going crazy?’”
Durham’s response was as quick and to the point as a Frazier hook.
“‘Don’t worry about that. I want you to go right back with your left, and he’ll fall after a while.’”
Frazier kept throwing the hook that night at Madison Square Garden, kept focused, and though Ali didn’t fall for a ten count, Frazier still got the biggest win of his career.
“The thing that I was concerned about was him and I,” he said. “I couldn’t surround my mind around the people that were there, whether Sammy Davis would say something wrong when I threw the left hook, or about Frank Sinatra snapping pictures. My mind was on getting the job done.”
After beating Ali in 1971, Frazier would defend his title twice more before meeting up with another unbeaten future Hall of Famer, George Foreman.
“I always thought that I was the best and I wasn’t worried about the man’s size; I said, let me take him on and give him a shot,” said Frazier.
Frazier and Foreman met in Jamaica on January 22, 1973, and it was no contest, as Foreman dropped the champ six times before the bout was halted in the second round. Even looking at the tape of the fight years later, Frazier still was amazed by the power of Foreman.
“He wasn’t just strong, he was tall,” laughs Frazier. “But he was powerful, trust me, he was. This guy had stuff I had never heard of before. I looked at the tape, and this guy lifted me up off the floor with one uppercut. I keep saying ‘wow’. Don’t get me wrong, I did try to get him, but he kept beating me to the shot.”
Frazier only went 3-3-1 in his final seven bouts after the loss to Foreman, but included in that series was the legendary ‘Thrilla in Manila’ in 1975, when Ali and Frazier pounded each other for 14 brutal rounds before Frazier trainer Eddie Futch had finally seen enough and called a halt to the fight. His 1981 comeback fight against Jumbo Cummings ended in a draw, and Frazier never returned to the ring again. I asked him six years ago what he missed most about the sport.
“I’ve got nothing to miss, I’m there every day.”
He was right, and despite his passing, he’s still here every day, in the history books, and in the hearts of those who were lucky enough to talk to him or see him live or on tape. The last question I had for him that day, which was one of the highlights of my career in this business, was how he would like to be remembered. And there was no talk of Ali, Foreman, world titles, or Olympic Gold medals.
He simply said, “I want them to remember that I was fair, concerned, and I had a lot of love in my heart for people. That’s where it’s at. I wanted to be fair to everybody, and I want everybody to have a chance.”
Rest in peace, Joe. You earned it.