By Gloria Dulan-Wilson
Wow! I just had such a sad, surreal moment, as the headlines flashed across my computer screen that former Heavyweight Boxing Champion, Smokin' Joe Frazier has died. I couldn't process it for a moment - it seemed so wrong on so many levels.
First of all, a friend of mine had just learned that Joe Frazier was a relative of hers (and that was yesterday, Sunday, November 6, folks!) Don't even know what brought up the subject or his name, unless somehow his spirit was reaching out to hers. I jokingly said she should look him up the next time she's in Philly.
This evening, I am now looking in retrospect at how many times Joe Frazier and I have crossed paths - literally and figuratively. He was not a friend or an idol of mine in any sense of the word, particularly since, back in the day, I was (and am) a die-heard Muhammad Ali fan and devotee -always will be. And Frazier was considered by many of us revolutionaries a "sell out" of sorts.
The City of Philadelphia had decided to embrace him as their native son, particularly after Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, and tried to get those of us who were working for the city, including yours truly, to take some publicity shots to show that we were all solidly behind him and against Ali. They paraded him through the then office of the Deputy City Manager, where I worked as a Career Advisor for Hard Core Unemployed African Americans. To their shock and dismay, we let it be known that we were Ali friends, and would neither be bought off or threatened for our stand. An embarrassing moment for Frazier, but, then we were newly minted militants, and would not deviate from our stance.
I was so stunned by the news that I called my best friend in Philly, Annie G, woke her up and told her the news. She was one of the militants, along with myself and a brother named Giles Wright, who felt it necessary to make it known that we were too"Black and Proud" to stand with Frazier Black in the day. It was slightly before midnight. She had already gone to bed and had not heard - stunned as I was, I needed to speak with someone who had been part of those early days.
The second time I met him was several years later after the Thrilla in Manilla - there was no political axe to grind then, just the fact that Ali had avenged his title was enough for me. I remember being polite but still somewhat distant. Just in case Ali or one of his fans was watching - I didn't want to send the wrong signal. Now, how silly was that? We did tend to take ourselves waaaaay to seriously back in the day, though, didn't we?
But the last two times I met the champ was in Harlem at what was then a favorite haunt of us in-crowd Blacks - PERKS on 123rd and Manhattan Ave. Those of us who were Perk's Regulars remember well the times Smokin' Joe would stop in and hang out. Perk had photos of him all over the place. Now retired, we could kick it and talk about the good old, bad old days, and the fact that boxing wasn't like it used to be.
He was energetic, friendly and a total gentleman. He always seemed to enjoy being around where people were enjoying life - and if you couldn't enjoy life at Perks, you might as well have just rolled the ground over on you and given up.
He and Hank Perkins the former owner and founder, used to mock fight and crack jokes. Meeting him under those circumstances, kind of secretly regretted taking such a harsh stance against him. He was down to earth and positive.
We spoke of Ali and his bout with Parkinson's disease; Don King and the white promoter's jealousy of his success, and a lot of other things. And of course, the brother could, and did dance.
The last time I saw him, on TV, was when he tried to get his son, Joe Frazier Jr., to follow in his footsteps in the ring. I remember thinking how sad it was, because it was clear that the kid couldn't take the punch his dad did, and wasn't really interested in pursuing a boxing career.
I guess over time, if you really look back in retrospect, everything balances out, doesn't it. Both Frazier and Ali have made great contributions to our histories. They were catalysts for other youth who were looking to get into the arena and make names for themselves.
The Bio On Joe Frazier that flashed across my computer appeared just a scant 21 minutes after his demise, which meant someone was aware of and anticipated his passing. I share it below for those of you who were not familiar with him:
"Joe Frazier Dies After Fight With Cancer
—He beat Muhammad Ali in the Fight of the Century, battled him nearly to the death in the Thrilla in Manila. Then Joe Frazier spent the rest of his life trying to fight his way out of Ali’s shadow.
That was one fight Frazier could never win.
He was once a heavyweight champion, and a great one at that. Ali would say as much after Frazier knocked him down in the 15th round en route to becoming the first man to beat Ali at Madison Square Garden in March 1971.
But he bore the burden of being Ali’s foil, and he paid the price. Bitter for years about the taunts his former nemesis once threw his way, Frazier only in recent times came to terms with what happened in the past and said he had forgiven Ali for everything he said.
Frazier, who died Monday night after a brief battle with liver cancer at the age of 67, will forever be linked to Ali. But no one in boxing would ever dream of anointing Ali as The Greatest unless he, too, was linked to Smokin’ Joe.
“You can’t mention Ali without mentioning Joe Frazier,” said former AP boxing writer Ed Schuyler Jr. “He beat Ali, don’t forget that.”
They fought three times, twice in the heart of New York City and once in the morning in a steamy arena in the Philippines. They went 41 rounds together, with neither giving an inch and both giving it their all.
In their last fight in Manila in 1975, they traded punches with a fervor that seemed unimaginable among heavyweights. Frazier gave almost as good as he got for 14 rounds, then had to be held back by trainer Eddie Futch as he tried to go out for the final round, unable to see.
“Closest thing to dying that I know of,” Ali said afterward.
Ali was as merciless with Frazier out of the ring as he was inside it. He called him a gorilla, and mocked him as an Uncle Tom. But he respected him as a fighter, especially after Frazier won a decision to defend his heavyweight title against the then-unbeaten Ali in a fight that was so big Frank Sinatra was shooting pictures at ringside and both fighters earned an astonishing $2.5 million.
The night at the Garden 40 years ago remained fresh in Frazier’s mind as he talked about his life, career and relationship with Ali a few months before he died.
“I can’t go nowhere where it’s not mentioned,” he told The Associated Press. “That was the greatest thing that ever happened in my life.”
Though slowed in his later years and his speech slurred by the toll of punches taken in the ring, Frazier was still active on the autograph circuit in the months before he died. In September he went to Las Vegas, where he signed autographs in the lobby of the MGM Grand hotel-casino shortly before Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s fight against Victor Ortiz.
An old friend, Gene Kilroy, visited with him and watched Frazier work the crowd.
“He was so nice to everybody,” Kilroy said. “He would say to each of them, `Joe Frazier, sharp as a razor, what’s your name?”’
Frazier was small for a heavyweight, weighing just 205 pounds when he won the title by stopping Jimmy Ellis in the fifth round of their 1970 fight at Madison Square Garden. But he fought every minute of every round going forward behind a vicious left hook, and there were few fighters who could withstand his constant pressure.
His reign as heavyweight champion lasted only four fights - including the win over Ali - before he ran into an even more fearsome slugger than himself. George Foreman responded to Frazier’s constant attack by dropping him three times in the first round and three more in the second before their 1973 fight in Jamaica was waved to a close and the world had a new heavyweight champion.
Two fights later, he met Ali in a rematch of their first fight, only this time the outcome was different. Ali won a 12-round decision, and later that year stopped George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire.
There had to be a third fight, though, and what a fight it was. With Ali’s heavyweight title at stake, the two met in Manila in a fight that will long be seared in boxing history.
Frazier went after Ali round after round, landing his left hook with regularity as he made Ali backpedal around the ring. But Ali responded with left jabs and right hands that found their mark again and again. Even the intense heat inside the arena couldn’t stop the two as they fought every minute of every round with neither willing to concede the other one second of the round.
“They told me Joe Frazier was through,” Ali told Frazier at one point during the fight.
“They lied,” Frazier said, before hitting Ali with a left hook.
Finally, though, Frazier simply couldn’t see and Futch would not let him go out for the 15th round. Ali won the fight while on his stool, exhausted and contemplating himself whether to go on.
It was one of the greatest fights ever, but it took a toll. Frazier would fight only two more times, getting knocked out in a rematch with Foreman eight months later before coming back in 1981 for an ill advised fight with Jumbo Cummings.
“They should have both retired after the Manila fight,” Schuyler said. “They left every bit of talent they had in the ring that day.”
Born in Beaufort, S.C., on Jan 12, 1944, Frazier took up boxing early after watching weekly fights on the black and white television on his family’s small farm. He was a top amateur for several years, and became the only American fighter to win a gold medal in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo despite fighting in the final bout with an injured left thumb.
After turning pro in 1965, Frazier quickly became known for his punching power, stopping his first 11 opponents. Within three years he was fighting world-class opposition and, in 1970, beat Ellis to win the heavyweight title that he would hold for more than two years.
It was his fights with Ali, though, that would define Frazier. Though Ali was gracious in defeat in the first fight, he was as vicious with his words as he was with his punches in promoting all three fights - and he never missed a chance to get a jab in at Frazier.
Frazier, who in his later years would have financial trouble and end up running a gym in his adopted hometown of Philadelphia, took the jabs personally. He felt Ali made fun of him by calling him names and said things that were not true just to get under his skin. Those feelings were only magnified as Ali went from being an icon in the ring to one of the most beloved people in the world.
After a trembling Ali it the Olympic torch in 1996 in Atlanta, Frazier was asked by a reporter what he thought about it.
“They should have thrown him in,” Frazier responded.
He mellowed, though, in recent years, preferring to remember the good from his fights with Ali rather than the bad. Just before the 40th anniversary of his win over Ali earlier this year - a day Frazier celebrated with parties in New York - he said he no longer felt any bitterness toward Ali.
“I forgive him,” Frazier said. “He’s in a bad way.”
As I'm writing this, I'm wondering what Muhammad Ali's and Don King's responses will be upon hearing of his passing. My condolences go out to his family, friends, and all the fight fans across the world, regardless of whose corner you were in, because he was truly one of the great ones.
Smokin' Joe Frazier has now made his transition to that Great Arena In The Sky, where he will always be a champion.