By Thomas Gerbasi
November 14, 2016
Heroes come in different forms. There are those you actually interact with, like your father. Then there are those who you admire from afar through a television set or a newspaper article.
In my case, my father was my tangible hero, while one of my heroes from afar was most certainly Joe Frazier, and “Smokin’ Joe” was a little closer than most sports figures, because back on 11th Avenue in Brooklyn in the late 70s and early 80s, 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 Frazier and Muhammad Ali – daily.
“Click-click” slammed the plastic recreations of Ali and Frazier against each other. “Click-click,” Frazier is down. He’s up. Ali is down.
Things were simpler back then and amusements didn’t come in the form of smart phones and video games. I still have my Frazier and Ali action figures (don’t 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. No eBay for these two, and in full disclosure, it was on a level of finding out that there was no Santa Claus when it was told to me that the figure in the set wasn’t Frazier, but Ken Norton.
I don’t care, it will always be Frazier to me, complete with the blue trunks he wore in Manila. And when someone is part of your childhood like that, eventually talking to them can either be a horrible experience in which your idols are shown to be mere mortals, or everything can live up to expectations and leave you feeling even better when it’s all over.
In 2005, I got time with the iconic Frazer, and of course, the first thing I had to ask the then-61-year-old what it was like to reduce grown men into 12-year-old fans again.
“I don’t want to be duckin’ and dodgin’” Frazier said then. “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.”
We lost Frazier in 2011 at the age of 67. He’s sorely missed, but not forgotten, as he represents an era long gone, not just from boxing, but society in general.
Straight shooting and to the point, Frazier’s style outside the ring was also reflected in his attitude once the bell rang. There was no feeling out, no dancing, and no hugging when Frazier got to smokin’. Over his 11-year career (not counting a one fight comeback in 1981), Frazier compiled a 32-4-1 record with 27 knockouts, with his only losses coming to two men – Ali and George Foreman - even though Frazier laughs when he refers 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.”
To some, Frazier was forced into the role of second fiddle to Ali during the 70s, all the while dealing with such ailments as cataracts, arthritis, and high blood pressure, even during the tail end of his active boxing career.
But never heard him crying “woe is me” or looking for sympathy. He was simply a man’s man, someone who did his job, did it well, and never looked for the pat on the back. Those were lessons learned in his native Beaufort, South Carolina.
One of 11 children, Frazier grew up tough. Pounding a homemade punching bag made of corncobs, 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 up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Sound familiar? It should if you’re a movie fan, yet for too many years, the only tribute to a fighter in Philly was to the fictional Rocky Balboa, and not the true fistic hero of the city.
That was finally rectified in 2015 when a statue was erected in his honor in the City of Brotherly Love.
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 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,” Frazier said 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 when in his early sixties, still sounded in awe of such 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,” Frazier said. “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. If you watch what they’re doing, then we’re gonna see that tomorrow.’”
It was what Frazier thought was missing with the fighters he was watching more than a decade ago.
“I think that’s one part missing,” he said. “Plus, I really don’t see no big fights going on now anywhere. They’re really ain’t fightin’ no more today. I can’t see a guy coming in with one punch and on the punch he missed they stop the fight.”
When it comes 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. But even though Frazier was able to appreciate the magnitude of the event long after his career was done, back then, his focus was only on the fight.
“The part about stopping the world, I didn’t pay one ounce of attention to that,” he said. “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, recalled 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,’” Frazier said, 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.
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 32 years later, Frazier was still 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 a couple of days back, 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.”
“Smokin’ Joe” 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. 24 years after that last bout, I asked Frazier, then the proprietor of Joe Frazier’s Gym in Philly, what he missed about the sport, and he chuckled.
“I’ve got nothing to miss, I’m there every day.”
Not even the roar of the crowd?
“I don’t hear nobody anyway. I don’t hear the big noise. The only noise I’d hear was when I’d go back to the corner and hear Yank and Eddie.”
He still cared about the sport and its participants though, making sure that when he wasn’t on the road, the fighters at his gym were well taken care of and taught properly about the hardest game.
“All these shim-sham-shoo guys, whoever they may be, come around, trying to tell a guy how to fight,” he said. “How are you gonna tell someone how to drive a car when you can’t drive one yourself? Baseball, football, basketball, hockey, all of these other sports, the guys that were on the field go back and teach the guys how to play. Boxing is a whole different thing. They may want to train, but not at Joe Frazier’s gym. If they ain’t had gloves on for at least four or five years, he ain’t gonna train nobody in here. I’m not gonna let it happen, because that’s how people get hurt.”
As Frazier explained, in the best case scenario, a trainer who has been in the trenches will know when a fighter is hurt in the gym and take immediate action.
“If a guy comes up to me and says, ‘Look, I don’t feel good in the head Joe,’ we’re gonna go to the doctor and see what the problem is,” he said. “I know that plenty of times I got shook, but the Lord has been with me. If the fight is two weeks away, two days, or one day away, let’s put it on the side and get it checked out because you may have a problem. If somebody has been there, been shook like I did, he knows exactly what I’m talking about and it ain’t nothing to play with.”
That was Joe Frazier - fighter, father, survivor, and friend to the men and women following the same road he walked. And for a man who will always be remembered as a great fighter, he wanted to be remembered for traits that had nothing to do with wearing gloves or winning a heavyweight championship.
“I want them to remember that I was fair, concerned, and I had a lot of love in my heart for people,” he said. “That’s where it’s at. I wanted to be fair to everybody, and I want everybody to have a chance.”