Up goes Frazier? Smokin' Joe overdue for statue in Philly

Joe Frazier appears with Muhammad Ali and Ed Rendell in 1993.
Joe Frazier appears with Muhammad Ali and Ed Rendell in 1993. (File photo)
Posted: June 15, 2011

PHILADELPHIA has sent many of the country's greatest athletes into a myriad of sports, including boxing. Being called a "Philadelphia fighter" was among the greatest compliments a boxer could receive.

Two of our greatest athletes are Joe Frazier and Bernard Hopkins, whose skill, heart and competitive drive rival any athlete in any sport.

Frazier never has gotten the tribute and praise due him either nationally or, shockingly, even in Philadelphia. Joe has been given the Order of the Palmetto by his native South Carolina, the state's highest civilian award, but has received no tribute from the City of Philadelphia (in part my fault).

There is a statue of a Philadelphia heavyweight champion prominently displayed in front of our great Art Museum. Is it Joe? Nope, it's Rocky (apologies to Sly Stallone, who is also a great Philadelphian). So consider the paradox. We have a statue of a make-believe movie champ, but we have nothing for the Philadelphian who is clearly among the top 10 heavyweight champs of all time. Yo, Adrian, does that sound fair to you?

The Daily News recently wrote about plans for a statue of Penn and Eagles great Chuck Bednarik to be placed at Franklin Field, although the process has been slowed by a lack of funding. A philly.com poll with the story found that more than 20 percent thought Frazier was deserving of a statue; only Bobby Clarke got more support.

A group of Frazier's friends and former associates currently are trying to raise money to create a statue of Joe.

Frazier, 67, came to Philadelphia as a 16-year-old and lived in the 1300 block of North 13th Street. Joe told me that the PAL Center near his home kept him out of trouble and he credits the center with giving him his start. As a fighter, Joe was a knockout machine. In his career, he fought 37 times (32-4-1) and knocked out his opponents 73 percent of the time. (As a comparison, Hopkins has a 53 percent knockout rate.) Frazier's only losses were twice to Muhammad Ali and twice to George Foreman.

His three fights with Ali are unquestionably the best series in the history of boxing. The first fight in 1971 was dubbed the "Fight of the Century" and Joe scored a decisive unanimous decision. Ali won a unanimous decision in the second fight, and then came the "Thrilla in Manila," perhaps as tough and brutal a fight ever fought.

With one eye completely closed and the other closing, Joe retired at the end of the 14th round - trainer Eddie Futch wouldn't let him come out for the 15th. Legend has it that Ali wanted to retire at the end of the 14th, too, but his corner wouldn't let him. In fact, later that night Ali had to be hospitalized while Joe went out on the town for dinner.

Frazier has been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. There is no question his hometown needs to honor him for his boxing career.

But Joe Frazier the man, the citizen of Philadelphia, also deserves to be appropriately recognized. He was, and is, a truly fine human being. It is well known that Ali taunted Joe and called him the "Great White Hope" and "Uncle Tom," but it is not widely known that after Ali was stripped of his title for refusing to fight in Vietnam, Joe petitioned President Nixon to have Ali's right to box reinstated. And Joe went even further. He boycotted the 1967 WBA elimination tournament to find a successor to Ali.

Joe never said no to an opportunity to help the city. When I was mayor, I asked him many times to come to events, especially those involving kids, and he always said yes. In 1993, as part of our first "Welcome America!" celebration, we had a boxing night with the Irish Olympic team fighting some local fighters. To draw people into the Convention Center for the event, we honored Ali. I asked Joe to join me in presenting the Philadelphia Bowl to Ali, and despite the fact that he and Ali were still bitter rivals, he said yes to help out the city.

I believe that when Joe saw how afflicted Ali was with Parkinson's disease and how bravely he carried on, some of the bitterness began to recede. Joe has always been a Philadelphian. He is one of us. The gym that he owns in North Philadelphia has been a training ground for many young fighters, including his son Marvis and his daughter Jackie.

Hopkins also is a truly compelling story. As a teenager, he was a one-man crime wave. At the age of 17 he was sent to Graterford Prison for committing nine felonies, mostly muggings. In prison he witnessed many terrible things, but he also found his passion for boxing. He served 5 years and upon his release he fought his first fight and lost.

He didn't do much losing after that. He knocked out 28 of his first 40 opponents, earning him the nickname "The Executioner," and he became the IBF middleweight champion in 1995. He scored a 24-second knockout in his first defense. He would later become the all-time recordholder with 20 defenses of his various middleweight crowns. He also went on to claim the WBC light-heavyweight title just last month when he defeated Jean Pascal. In doing so at age 46, he surpassed George Foreman to become the oldest fighter to win a major organization's championship belt.

I believe Bernard will be known as one of the greatest fighters ever because of his record, his longevity, his power as perhaps the best defensive boxer ever.

Bernard has, and will, get his due. Joe's recognition is overdue.

If a Frazier statue were to be built, where would it go? Some suggest North Broad on the Avenue of the Arts because Joe has been so much a part of North Philadelphia. But I believe that it should be near the Wells Fargo Center as part of the PhillyLive! development, where sports fans could see it forever.

Joe helped christen the Spectrum when he fought Tony Doyle on Oct. 17, 1967 - the first main event held there. It didn't last very long. Joe won by TKO when the fight was stopped 64 seconds into the second round. Pretty good - even better than Rocky!

Fans interested in learning more about the Joe Frazier Sculptural Tribute or making a contribution can register at http://www.joefrazierscorner.com/

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