Stay in this business long enough and skepticism becomes your default mode. So, when it was announced that a new book on Joe Frazier was hitting the shelves, there was no way that Glenn Lewis’ Sparring with Smokin’ Joe was going to tell me anything new about the iconic former heavyweight champion.
Add in the tagline of “Joe Frazier's Epic Battles and Rivalry with Ali” for a book released a month before the 50th anniversary of Frazier’s first fight with Muhammad Ali, and this was going to be something to be forgotten as soon as the last page was read.
Boy, was I wrong.
Not only is Sparring with Smokin’ Joe one of the best books having to do with Frazier, and hence his trilogy with Ali, but one of the better boxing books of recent years, a testament to the reporting of Lewis, a director of journalism at York College and professor of print journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.
“I'm sick of reading boxing books where the guy never met the person he's writing about,” laughed Lewis. “All that hearsay, I could get that myself. There's always the same stories that always circulate and, to be honest, to flesh the book out, the last few chapters, I did a lot of that kind of research and used some of the material that other people used, but what I tried to do is trigger it with comments that were made by Joe or people in his entourage or people I interviewed directly, and then set those things up with what people who were there saw and experienced. So even that part was researched, but it was researched off what people had said earlier.”
Originally reported for an Esquire story over several months in 1980, Lewis had access to Frazier, his family, and basically anyone in his orbit at that time. It shows how different a time it was then, when fighters like Frazier and Ali welcomed the press and let them into their world. It’s impossible to imagine any writer getting unfettered access to a Floyd Mayweather Jr. or any of the top stars of the sport for months, yet while being around the main subject of the story is nice, the best material often comes from those around that subject. Reading the book, it’s a reminder to all writers that getting a great story often requires getting off the internet and smart phones and into the world. In boxing, that means talking to anyone and everyone in the gym.
“How could you not be in the gym?” said Lewis. “That's what it's all about. The best stories in that book, if you think about it, were the ones that I got from minor guys in his entourage.”
In Frazier’s world, that meant business associates, the fighters and trainers in his gym, and even the members of his band, as Lewis traveled with Joe Frazier and The Knockouts as they toured down south. Some of the best stories in the book come from that time, as you try to picture a boxing legend playing in some dive in the middle of nowhere in front of a handful of patrons. Some were drunk, some heckled Frazier, some did both, and while it stung him, the show must go on, and it did.
It’s a different side of Frazier, but what still comes out is the man who kept his dignity intact even when the world didn’t treat him the same way. Lewis believes a lot of that reaction had to do with the comments made by Ali as he promoted their classic trilogy.
“That's where I saw the impact of what Ali said about him, in those clubs,” he said. “Here's Joe, playing a hundred miles from where he grew up, and these are supposedly his people, people who are relatively poor farmers from that area, and you would think they would be whole hog behind him. But you were still seeing some of the leftover impact of Ali calling himself the Black champion and Joe the White champion and painting Joe as a traitor to his race and that kind of thing, which was ridiculous. And these people are still responding to the images Ali created, and Joe's paying for it because that was a concrete example of how Ali managed to somewhat alienate him from his own people.”
The time Lewis spent with Frazier came at an interesting moment in Smokin’ Joe’s life. He was four years removed from his rematch with George Foreman and the reason Esquire wanted the story was so Frazier could talk about a comeback, one that would presumably be highlighted by a fourth fight with Ali, who was preparing for what proved to be a disastrous return against Larry Holmes.
“I originally did the story for Esquire, and the most important thing in their mind was to get Joe to admit he's coming out of retirement with the hopes of fighting Ali, who was coming out of retirement to fight Holmes,” Lewis said. “And to tell you the truth, what's really strange for me in writing the book, you gotta realize I did this reporting 40 years ago. And when I started writing this, I was going back and looking at my notes and transcripts from 40 years ago and all of a sudden you're reliving something from another part of your life. I teach journalism, I've taught it for the last 40 years, I run a journalism program at York College, so I'm always talking about writing and all of a sudden, I'm looking back, watching myself as a reporter 40 years ago, and the first thing I'm noticing is all the mistakes I'm making.
“In the first chapter, I'm pushing Joe so hard to say certain things and not letting go, and if you think about it, it's the beginning of our relationship,” he continues. “I only interviewed him one time before that and here I am pushing him so hard and actually being a little offensive about it. I'm trying to stir him to say certain things I wanted him to say and it's one of those moments when you realize there's a jerk in the room and the jerk in the room is me. (Laughs) When you're a kid, you don't really think about how hard pushing hard really is and where you're gonna go past the point of having this guy still with you. And I obviously pissed him off. I hurt his feelings and he was a much more sensitive guy than I thought would be the case and he felt things deeply.”
Yet after some tense moments, Frazier leaves to shower after his workout, and when he returns, all is well once again.
“It was as if nothing ever happened,” said Lewis. “That's one of the things about him that people don't realize. He was an amazingly resilient guy. No matter what happens to him, no matter how disappointing something is or how hurtful something is, he had a mechanism in him; he had that saying, 'Ain't nothin' but a party.' And that was his way of saying, there's worse things than this and you can recover from this. It wasn't like he was just saying the right words; the animosity was gone. He just put it behind him. I was supposed to spend a few months with him and that could have been the end of the whole thing right there. He moved along as if nothing ever happened. And I'm sure that's how he handled his boxing losses and his losses in life.”
Though it’s clear that Lewis has a soft spot for Frazier, the book gives all sides of the man, not just the positive ones. Yet again, the reporting by Lewis is fair and even-handed, a lesson to his students despite how he felt about his work back then. And that reporting comes through in the profile of the late, great George Benton and most notably in his telling of the story of Marvis Frazier.
“Marvis was a much better fighter than people give him credit for,” said Lewis, and while most think of Frazier for his losses at the hands of Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson, reading about his amateur career and the high hopes Benton had for him before Joe took over training duties, it’s clear that had Benton remained in charge, things might have been different for Marvis.
It’s gems like these that will keep boxing fans engaged even if they know all there is to know about the boxing career of Joe Frazier. In fact, the only question those fans might have when they’re through with the book is, “Why did it take 40 years to get here?”
“I originally thought that we would be doing a movie out of this,” said Lewis. “My agent at the time said, 'This is really a made for TV movie or a documentary. It's all scenes and it plays out that way.' So I held off for a while, and then I didn't want to interfere with anything that the Fraziers wanted to do. So the first time I looked up and started talking to people about a movie kind of thing and not a book was in the mid-90s. And that was the time when Joe was working on his autobiography. And I thought to myself, I'm not gonna compete with this, and there's no way we're gonna tell Joe's story better than Joe can. And I just decided that I couldn't do that to him. The next time things came up was when Joe was sick and I certainly didn't want anyone thinking that I was trying to profit from Joe's death. I couldn't imagine ever doing that. Then in 2013, Marvis did a book, and I didn't want to get in the way of what he was gonna do.”
An excellent biography by Mark Kram Jr. was also released in 2019, but by then, Lewis had already decided that the time was right to write a story only he could tell.
“I put this stuff away for a while and I took it out a couple years ago and I'm thinking that we're not that far away from the Fight of the Century, and that seemed to be something I could aim towards.”
And here it is, skeptics (like me) be damned. Sometimes, though, it feels good to be wrong, and for the record, Sparring with Smokin’ Joe is a must for the bookshelf, not just for boxing fans, but for people who want to read about a unique American life and a man who didn’t deserve to be in anyone’s shadow.
“From a non-boxing point of view, I hope the readers take away his homespun humor, his good heart, and I hope they take away his ability to connect with people on the street and people around him and how open he was to fans and all the things that were going on around him,” said Lewis, who brings up a night in a VFW dressing room at one of Frazier’s shows.
“There’s this drunk screaming and saying, ‘I want a piece of you.’ Afterward, I asked him, ‘Does this happen all the time?’ Joe said, ‘If I was a grumpy son of a bitch, they wouldn't be bothering me. But because I'm so open to them and because I'm more welcoming, they all think they know me and can approach me anytime. If I was a grumpy guy, I'd save myself a lot of heartache.’ That's Joe. He knew that it made his life more difficult, but he still couldn't help being Joe.”
For more information on Sparring with Smokin’ Joe, visit https://www.amazon.com/Sparring-Smokin-Joe-Fraziers-Battles/dp/1538136791