Ahead of the Curve

It's an impressive sight: the Rocky statue near the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

So popular is Rocky with tourists that it's scoring points against traditional heavyweights like Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell Center.

But for Philadelphia to prominently display a statue of fictitious Rocky Balboa (gifted to the City by Sylvester Stallone) without one honoring former boxing champion Joe Frazier borders on the absurd.  It would be akin to the City of Boston erecting a statue to honor Sam Malone (Cheers) without remembering Ted Williams: too weird for words.

Rocky was a fine flick: a dash of Terry Malloy (On the Waterfront) with a lotta' Arthur Fonzarelli (Happy Days).

But there have been many great boxing films: John Garfield and Lilli Palmer in Body and Soul (1947); Requiem for a Heavyweight (Jack Palance 1956 / Tony Quinn 1962); Fat City (Stacy Keach / 1972); Raging Bull (Bob De Niro / 1980) and The Last Round (George Chuvalo / 2003).

While Sylvester's movie hero was inspired by New Jersey boxer Chuck Wepner and his 15 Round battle of attrition against Muhammad Ali (1975), the blue-collar life & times of Joe Frazier is hardly lacking for inspiration and dramatics.

A South Carolinian by birth, Philadelphia became Joe's adopted home.  There he'd learn his pugilist trade from trainer / manager / father-figure Yance Durham.  Together they'd reach the pinnacle of boxing, ducking no contender along the way: Bonavena (2); Doug Jones; Chuvalo; Mathis; Quarry (2); Ellis (2); Foreman (2); Ali (3).

Joe was the real deal.  So real he gave Ali his first dose of reality on March 8, 1971.

That's the date when Madison Square Garden was host to what the challenger dubbed "the biggest sporting event in the history of the whole planet earth": Frazier v Ali I.  So anticipated was the fisticuff that riots broke-out in some cities when disappointed fans were turned away from over-crowded closed-circuit TV parlors (Time: 3-22-71).

One of many VIPs in attendance catching the wave, Salvador Dali described the scene as "surrealistic" (Time).  When the spectacle was over, Joe had won a unanimous decision by flooring the Louisville Lip with a wicked left hook in the 15th Round.  He could now claim what was already his: the world's undisputed heavyweight championship.

In the swollen aftermath of their slugfest Joe described the decisive blow: "I've gotta' give (Cassius) Clay credit, he takes some punches.  Oh my god...that shot I hit him with in the last round...I went back home, back to the country for that one!" (Time).

What Frazier didn't claim that night was a champion's admiration.  He never would receive the accolades befitting one who wins the Fight of the Century.  Like David of Biblical fame, Joe too had toppled a giant.  He just didn't have David's publicist.

While the veteran press corp panned Ali as a draft-dodger, that grizzled old bunch were becoming passe.  Ali spoke to a new (TV) generation.  He was bigger than The Beatles.

To the new press Ali was a quote-machine, favored over the modest, sometimes moody Frazier.  Charming one moment and cruel the next, the outspoken Muhammad was a hard sell to many Americans since his conversion and draft refusal.  But he had a kindred spirit in Howard Cosell.  In the lawyer's hands Ali showed a different side, less entertaining but kinder and surprisingly patient with the blunt and always provocative Cosell.

With Frazier there was no pre-fight poetry.  He was an all-day fighter.  Like Marciano and Canadian Chuvalo, when Joe stepped into a ring he knew only one direction: forward.

After the colossal win his body & soul seemed to be telling him...enough.  He had the guts (two more epic battles with Ali) but his country-punch had gone to pasture.  While George Foreman's 1973 beat-down in Jamaica effectively ended Joe's career, the grill-meister may've said it best: 'Frazier put everything into that bout.  How do you top the Fight of the Century (Ringside ESPN)?'

Over the years praise has been so scant for Joe that whenever Frazier v Ali I is discussed all anyone seems to talk about is Round 15 and how quick the loser got up off the canvas.

It doesn't help that in 2010 you're as unlikely to get a look-see at Joe's signature bout as you were in 1971.  Owner of the film rights (Michael Jackson estate or Don King?) must be a big Ali fan as a viewing today is about as rare as a Sasquatch sighting in Times Square.

Like Gene Tunney (Dempsey) and Ezzard Charles (Louis & Marciano), Frazier is part of that sub-pantheon of great boxers who remain forever eclipsed by an immensely popular opponent.

Philadelphia's a big city.  Joe may already be cast in bronze somewhere in the metropolis unknown to this simple writer.  If not, it's high time City elders allocated the funds and picked a prominent place to honor the winner of the Fight of the Century.  Detroit remembered and did right by another great boxer: Joe Louis Arena.

Even baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has been honored recently with a statue in the Brew City. 

It's time Philly adopted Smokin' Joe as one of it's own.  Who knows, maybe it'll spur-on America to finally give Joe that collective round of applause he never really did receive.

Street Fare

November 11, 2011  03:44 AM ET

Joe Frazier is a true hero and human being who suffered financially but still spent decades training underserved youth and aspiring fighters in his North Philly Gym. He was such a warm heart even his own darkest times, and radiated his smile and signature smokin gun handshake to everyone he met. I am appreciative of having spent 2yrs during my college days at Penn training at his gym. I'm Asian American and I'm glad I learned about this great man and his sport of boxing. If there is a foundation to build Joe a statue, I will personally donate for it. Let's not dishonor and forget this man:


November 11, 2011  03:49 AM ET

Joe Frazier is a Philadelphian icon and true human being. The man had nothing but bad luck, being overshadowed by Ali in his career to seeing his son fail to win the HW title as he did by losing to Holmes and prime Tyson. He lost most of his fortune and lived above his run-down gym for decades, yet he never failed to show his radiant smile to ANYONE who came to learn boxing from him. The fact that the man is so underrated and forgotten by his own community really shows the moral degradation of society today. As an Asian American studying at Penn for 4yrs, I spent 2yrs training at his gym in North Philadelphia. I'm so grateful that I had the chance to meet this great man and learn about both the underserved community he represented and the sport he carried with such honor. If there is a foundation for building a statue for Joe, I'm donating 1000 dollars. let's not let this great human being be forgotten:


December 18, 2011  10:56 PM ET

Thanks for reading, Dan, and for sharing some of your personal insights into Joe Frazier's life. I don't think any athlete ever has or will ever again compete in as large a shadow as Mr. Frazier did in that of Mr. Ali. If you get "ESPN Classic," try to watch a 70s program entitled "Woodies World." The great sportswriter Haywood Hale Braun (?) did a trilogy of episodes on Joe and his trainer Yance Durham's rise to the championship. It's the best of sport.


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