Catching Up with ‘Smokin Joe Frazier’
Breakfast with the Champ…
By Sabina Clarke
I’m sitting before Joe Frazier, the former heavyweight champion of the world while he finishes a bowl of cereal. He is casual, warm and welcoming and greets me like an old friend. We’ve met before but I doubt if he remembers. It was in 1992 at the Black Writers Reception at the Free Library of Philadelphia. His agent called and I asked her to bring the Champ to the event the following evening. It was an off-the-cuff invite- a long shot, a gamble.
So imagine my surprise when ‘Smokin’ Joe, in his trademark fedora, showed up with his agent in tow. Once spotted, a low buzz erupted thru the lobby where the event was being held. Frazier has that effect. He was gracious and at completely ease in an unfamiliar milieu; content to be a guest and stay low key. But that was not to be; he was the star attraction.
Joe Frazier’s story begins on January 17, 1944 in Beaufort, South Carolina where he was born the twelfth child to a poor sharecropper, Rubin Frazier and his wife, Dolly. He grew up on a 10-acre family farm with his eleven brothers and sisters. His brother David, born after him, died; making Joe, nicknamed ‘Billy Boy’, the baby of the family.
When asked what his greatest moment was, he answered, “When my Mama pushed me out.” I needed a translation: “when I was born.” It is obvious Frazier takes nothing for granted. Gratitude is key to understanding the man.
His parents grew vegetables and raised hogs but their main income came from working on the large farms of white landowners. It bothered ‘Billy Boy’ that “Daddy worked from sunrise to sunset not only for himself but for the white man.” He was always by his ‘Daddy’s’ side helping with chores; cutting wood and pumping water. His Daddy had one arm.
The Frazier family had no indoor plumbing, no bathroom, no telephone and no running water but they were the only family in the neighborhood with electricity and the only family with a TV. So, everyone would gather at their home to watch the Wednesday Night Fights with Pabst Blue Ribbon. The memory is as vivid to Frazier today as if it were yesterday and he gets visibly excited when he talks about it- “Back in those days, Daddy was a little blessed; we had a television. So they all came over to our house to watch the fights. My uncle Israel would yell, ‘The fight is on’ and he’d look at me and say, ‘Look at that boy-he’s gonna be another Joe Louis.’
Uncle Israel’s comparison of him to the boxer Joe Louis made an impression on him but it was watching the fights that really got him hooked. He remembers watching Ezzard Charles, Joe Louis, Jersey Joe Walcott, Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano, Rocky Graziano and Willie Pep but his favorite boxer was Henry Armstrong, “I liked him because he never missed a punch. His defense is my offense. I thought if all these guys who made it are from the South, I’m gonna do better.”
At age 10, ‘Billy Boy’ knew he wanted to make things better for his parents. He wanted ‘Mommy’ and ‘Daddy’ to have a more comfortable life, “I wanted them to have an indoor bathroom and air conditioning to cool them down.” This desire to make things better for Rubin and Dolly would fuel his dream to one day be a champion.
The society that Joe Frazier grew up in during the late 1940’s and all through the 1950’s, particularly in the Deep South, was extremely racist. Black children were not allowed to use the local playground. Frazier attended a segregated school and had to walk four miles to get there. Often his work day would begin after school and extend past midnight. At 15, he dropped out of school. This might embitter any impressionable young boy but there is no trace of bitterness in Frazier, even now, so many years later, “We had racial problems and prejudice all through the South but it didn’t bother me; it didn’t stop me. I had my own bed, my own house, plenty of food to eat and Daddy had a car. I came out of school in the 10th grade and started working for the government. If I sat around and worried about that, I’d never make it. I was going downtown and meeting people. The sun was shining.” His positive attitude and open embrace of life despite having faced enormous obstacles is apparent even now.
Frazier’s path to capturing the boxing world’s heavyweight title in 1971 began with a makeshift punching bag made of burlap. “When I was 12 years old, Mama chopped up sticks, rags, corncobs, brick and moss and wrapped them in a burlap bag. I hung the bag from the branch of an oak tree and practiced everyday for one hour. She gave me one hour every evening before I did my chores around the house.” That was all that was needed for the dream to be born.
Joe told his relatives he was going to be the next heavyweight champion of the world, “You can all laugh but I’m gonna be world champion someday.” They scoffed at his dream but that didn’t deter him, “I believed in myself. You must believe in yourself and work hard everyday. And never give up on your dream. All I had to build my dream on was that homemade heavy bag.”
At 17, he left Beaufort for New York City to live with his older brother Tommy and his wife. He confides almost nonchalantly, “After two years of my sleeping in a chair and sharing a three bedroom apartment and not being able to find regular work, I moved to Philadelphia where I had aunts and uncles who were very successful.” In Philadelphia, he got a job with Cross Brothers, a slaughterhouse and practiced his punches on hanging sides of beef while moving them into the refrigerator. A similar scene would later appear in actor Sylvester Stallone’s blockbuster movie, Rocky. Frazier also ran along the banks of the Schuylkill River and up the Art Museum steps regularly while in training; also reminiscent of a scene in Rocky.
In was in 1961 that Joe Frazier decided to change his life and revive the Joe Louis dream that he carried with him since he was a young boy. He remembered uncle Israel’s words, ‘That boy’s gonna be another Joe Louis.’ So, he signed up for the local PAL (Police Athletic League) gym at 23rd and Columbia in North Philadelphia to get in shape. The gym was run by a retired cop, Duke Dugent, who Frazier remembers fondly.
Encouraged by Dugent, Frazier began to train as an amateur with local trainer Yancey ‘Yank’ Durham and veteran trainer, Willie Reddish. Durham was his chief manager and trainer until his death in 1973 and it was Durham who christened him ‘Smokin Joe’. He used to say to him, ‘Go out there and make some smoke come from those gloves.’ Quickly gaining a reputation for his devastating left hook , he went on to win the Philadelphia Golden Gloves novice heavyweight title in 1962 followed by the Middle Atlantic Golden Gloves heavyweight championship title in 1962, 1963, and 1964.
His big break came in 1964 soon after his 20th birthday when he was chosen to be part of the United States Olympic Boxing Team at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Despite having a broken thumb, he beat his opponent, Hans Huber of Germany, to win a gold medal for the United States, “I won the gold medal with a busted-up thumb that was knocked out of place. They wanted to x-ray it but I wouldn’t let them because if they had, they wouldn’t have let me fight.” Toughness is key to understanding the man.
Frazier knew that a broken finger would drop him from the competition. So, he kept his severe pain to himself and competed using his right hand more than his fearsome left hook. He recalls standing at the podium as they played the National Anthem, “It was a great feeling being there with all the other countries. I knew my Daddy was proud but I didn’t cry.” The following year Rubin Frazier died of lung cancer at 53. Frazier took it hard, “My Daddy was my hero, my heartbeat. I was always by his side.”
As his career was taking off in 1966, his trainer Yank Durham contacted one of the most respected trainers in boxing, Eddie Futch, who lived in Los Angeles. He would join the team as an assistant trainer. Under Futch’s tutelage, Frazier adopted the bob-and- weave defense style which made him a difficult target. He also added power to his punches.
The pinnacle of Frazier’s boxing career was March 8, 1971, Madison Square Garden, his first bout with Muhammad Ali who was defending his heavyweight title. Dubbed the ‘Fight of the Century’ it was televised closed-circuit around the world and had an in-house audience that included Frank Sinatra, who photographed the event for Life Magazine; singer Diana Ross; comedian Woody Allen; actor Dustin Hoffman and actor Burt Lancaster who gave exciting color commentary. The sold-out event generated a media frenzy that hadn’t been seen before or since. Les Wolff, Frazier’s manager said, “Everyone I’ve met who was at that fight in Madison Square Garden calls it ‘magical’. If you were anyone of stature, you tried to get tickets. Frank Sinatra couldn’t get tickets so he was hired by Life Magazine as their official photographer; even though they had to teach him how to use a camera the day before. Burt Lancaster had to do commentary to get seats. It was the largest single sporting event in the history of Madison Square Garden and the history of the world. Three hundred million people viewed it on closed-circuit TV.”
Frazier won by a knock-out. He staggered Ali in the 11th round and knocked him down in the 15th round to become heavyweight champion of the world. During most of the fight Ali looked flat on his feet while Frazier dazzled with a whipping left hand and a formidable left hook. By round 8, the crowd was shouting ‘Ali’ but after round 8, Ali started slowing down and the crowd began yelling ‘Joe.’ What does Frazier remember about that night? “It was a great moment. Over the years, we made that our campaign-waiting for Ali to get his license reinstated so we could knock him out-and we did. So, it was really a great moment.” And how does he feel about Ali today? “The guy’s down, why kick him.” Will there be any collaboration between the two of you in the future? “We’re trying to put some things together now.”
Frazier’s final bout with Muhammad Ali was the 1975 ‘Thrilla in Manila’. Eddie Futch, his trainer stopped the fight in the 15th and final round because Frazier’s left eye was closed and bleeding and he couldn’t see. Frazier didn’t want to stop fighting. It was a Herculean demonstration of courage and stamina by a badly battered Frazier. Ali, the victor, was also badly beaten and collapsed in the ring immediately after the fight ended. Of his last bout with Ali, he says, “I won up to a point. I lost the fight but I won the battle.” Looking at the fight today, it is obvious that Frazier was robbed, as he was in the 1974 bout with Ali.
Yet, in 1976, Joe Frazier returned to his hometown in triumph. He bought his family a three hundred sixty-five acre plantation and fixed up all the houses on the plantation. From being excluded from the local gym as a boy, he now had his own state-of –the art gymnasium in what was once a four car garage. Even though he couldn’t get his check cashed at the local bank in 1971 when he was heavyweight champion of the world, Frazier helped build the Governor’s residence and seven government buildings in the Laurel Bay section of Beaufort. And the boy who walked four miles to school every day now has a street named after him, “It’s called ‘Joe Frazier Boulevard’ and it is seven miles long and runs straight into the Governor’s residence.”
At sixty-four, Joe Frazier is getting stronger after a debilitating auto accident in 2002 which seriously injured his spine and necessitated several surgeries from which he is still recovering. He is lean and in shape and boxes a few rounds every day. His schedule is full and he travels all over the world, even though “I’m not crazy about flying. I’d rather drive but I can’t drive to London or Ottawa, Canada. So, I have to trust in the Lord. “His schedule includes sports memorabilia auctions, trade shows, meet and greet events and business meetings that he attends with his manager and friend Les Wolff.
Family is a priority for Joe Frazier. He has 11 children and 25 grandchildren, “All of my kids sent me cards for Fathers Day and I see my grandchildren every now and then.” During this interview, his son Marvis came in to empty the trash. He has a nice face and appears very solicitous of his Dad.
Even though Joe Frazier grew up poor, his family was close knit. Parental respect and parental responsibility are a constant refrain. When asked to describe the relationship between a boxer and his trainer he draws an interesting parallel, “Well let’s put it this way-it has to come from Mama and Daddy. It has to come from them who raised us. It can’t come from the trainer. You should abide by the rules and regulations of Mama and Daddy, because that’s their job. If you don’t listen to Mom and Dad, there’s going to be hell in school, hell on the streets, and hell on the job. There’s going to be hell wherever you go. In my family, we all listened to Mom and Dad. That’s the problem with our kids today. It’s Mom and Dad not taking control. What Mom and Dad say, that’s the way it should be. There are no adjustments to that.”
His paternal grandmother is part Irish; he talks about her influence on him: “My grandmother Susan, my Daddy’s mother, was part Irish. She had white skin and blond hair. She set me on the right path-on the right direction in life.”
What is Joe Frazier’s philosophy of life? “Be true to yourself and enjoy yourself. I do all I can and some more-as long as it’s right. You don’t know how long you’re going to be around; so, black, red, purple, orange, green or white—enjoy yourself.”
Les Wolff remembers the first words Frazier uttered when they met ‘You never insult a fan.’ “Joe just doesn’t sign autographs, he talks to people, asks them how they are doing because he is really interested in his fans and they are interested in him. He’s a class act.”
He recalls a time when he and Frazier were having dinner at a Holiday Inn and a group of people were celebrating, “One of the couples gave us a card and invited us to their wedding reception. Three weeks later, after finishing an interview I asked Joe, “Joe, do you want to go to the wedding reception? We showed up at the reception with two hundred cops and they all went nuts.”
“Another time”, recalls Wolff, “at a restaurant in Washington, D.C. a Navy Seal from the Vietnam War came up to Joe and sat down with us and told Joe he was the hero of the Navy Seals because he took on opponents bigger than he was and he never backed down; he just kept moving forward.”
Wolff is busy promoting all aspects of the Frazier brand. He is talking to people in the entertainment field about a record deal and reviving Joe’s musical career. He is talking to publishers about a children’s book and a motivational book on Joe’s life and career. He is in discussions with the Hollywood director Penny Marshall about optioning the film rights to Joe’s life and with the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) about a documentary on Frazier for worldwide distribution. And there are the licensing and endorsement opportunities and the robe Frazier wore in his ’75 fight with Ali, the ‘Thrilla in Manila.’ that was recently auctioned off by Sotheby’s.
Wolff is intent on capitalizing on Joe Frazier’s universal appeal. “Joe, Muhammad Ali and the soccer player, Pele, are the only athletes that are known in every nook and cranny of the world. Joe has world-wide recognition. He was more than an athlete. He was a player on the stage of history.”
A ferocious fighter with possibly the best left hook in heavyweight history, Joe Frazier left an indelible mark on the boxing world. As for his record, the Champ says,
“The record has me losing four fights; I say two. It was George Forman; he beat me up good.”
Last year, Joe Frazier’s Gym, a Philadelphia landmark, was shuttered, perhaps permanently. It has a price tag on it of over $2 million with a listing that beckons, ‘Would you like to own a piece of history?’ For the past 40 years, the gym was a haven for aspiring young boxers.
Frazier says he closed his gym because “I prepared young fighters for the fight game and when it was time to go pro, they would go with someone else. The young men walked away as if nothing went on. I stayed with my trainer. I stayed with my manager. I was loyal and that’s the way it should be.”
As I comment on his place in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, he laughs and says, “Where else would they put me?”