If you somehow missed the news, Smokin' Joe Frazier died earlier this month of liver cancer. Better writers than I have shared great words over his passing. But I'll try a few. Because he deserved the love. --BK
I met Joe Frazier 20 years ago at his gym, up in Olney. I was an assistant editor for a small local paper. We were doing a story on his daughter, Jackie Frazier-Lyde, and needed to take some photos to run with the piece. Jackie asked if I wanted to just meet her at Joe's gym.
Damn right I did.
I hit my stride as a boxing fan during the golden age of the mid-'70s, when Smokin' Joe (and the rest of the heavyweight division) were in their glory years. Muhammad Ali, Ken Norton, George Foreman, Joe Frazier.
Boxing — and especially boxing during that era — was everything I was not. It was big, tough as nails, skilled, black, and badass. The only thing Joe Frazier and I had in common was Philadelphia, and our relative shortness.
To this day, I love boxing. Given a few hours to myself, I'm happy as a pig in shit watching old bouts on ESPN Classic. (I have my favorites: the Ali-Fraziers, the Ali-Foremans, the Pryor-Arguellos, and on.) I have a speed bag in my art studio that I bang on — ticketa ticketa ticketa, ticketa ticketa ticketa — and I get the same sort of contact high from playing ice hockey as many do from boxing. From hitting and being hit.
But boxing also scares the crap out of me the way, say, prison scares the crap out of me. Outside of hockey scuffles, I've never really been in a fight. I have no training, and I like to think I might make a decent showing sparring with someone else my height and weight who is equally untrained. But I fear that wouldn't be the case, and the fact is I've never been tested against that fear. One on one. In the ring.
Joe Frazier's Gym was in a tough section of Olney, which at the time was one of the most grim sections of Philly. It was the sort of neighborhood (think The Wire) that no longer exists in many cities. On the subway ride up there, I removed the silver chain around my neck, cursed my oxford work shirt as I rolled up its sleeves, and untucked it. I put my glasses in my pocket, and loosened my walk. I was suburban, but streetwise, now living in the city, with empty crack vials at my bus stop in those days — but you simply did not fuck with Olney.
Even as a layman fan, I could see that Joe Frazier was difficult to fight. He was short, awkward, constantly bobbing, attacking from odd angles. He hooked quickly and hard. And he was relentless.
In person, outside the ring, he came off as a warm, personable guy. Jackie introduced me to Joe in his office, and to his son Marvis (who had the misfortune of meeting Mike Tyson at the peak of his powers), and he couldn't have been nicer or more welcoming to a wide-eyed suburban white kid with a Nikon in his bag.
Even with a stylish lady lawyer as my non-opponent (though she later cashed in on the women's boxing boom and went toe to toe with Laila Ali), it was a thrill simply to step through the ropes and into the ring.
It was the only time I've ever set foot in a ring — or even in a boxing gym — and I hold that memory, that feeling, dear. The ring — any ring — is sacred space, reserved for men (and women!) with the stones to enter. Because the risk of domination is terrifying, and boxing is as much a battle of mental acuity as it is one of physical acumen. Outside of war, the toughest thing anyone can do is to step into that square for the first time and put on the gloves — often against a bigger, stronger opponent. (And for that, I have great respect for Marvis Frazier as well.)
Behind Jackie in the picture at right is a framed print of Joe, touching gloves with Ali.
Joe was the first man to beat Muhammad Ali (in the "Fight of the Century" at Madison Square Garden). They fought twice more during their careers, and though I liked Ali during his day, Ali never gave Joe the respect he deserved. His taunting before their bout in Manila was downright vicious colorism. Their 41 rounds together left each forever broken in his own way, and their final bout was possibly the most brutal match ever, with arguably neither fighter physically able to continue into the 15th round.
Smokin' Joe effectively retired in 1976 with a record of 32-4, having never lost to anyone not named Ali or (the much bigger) Foreman. He came back five years later and logged a draw before hanging up his gloves for good, but for nearly a decade, he was the baddest man on the block.
But what a good bad man he was.
Godspeed, Joe. Rest in peace.