Joe Frazier reflected on his life and times in 2009 interview

Joe Frazier poses for a portrait in April 2009 in New York.
Joe Frazier poses for a portrait in April 2009 in New York. (Associated Press)
Posted: November 09, 2011

JOE FRAZIER leaned forward and picked a cherry from the bowl that sat on the dining-room table at the place he had on the 20th floor of a downtown hotel. Somehow, we had gotten on the subject of his old R&B band, "Smokin' Joe and The Knockouts." In occasional gigs back in the 1970s, Joe was the lead vocalist of the group, and even had a contract with Capitol Records. The "Knockouts" never caught on, but the songbird in Joe was always apt to soar with unbidden spontaneity, as it did that day we met in his apartment in June 2009.

"And now, the time is near . . . " he began to croon.

"To domineer . . . "

He stopped and asked with a gravelly chuckle, "Remember that one . . . 'My Way?' Paul Anka rewrote some of the words to it just for me."

Joe was full of easy cheer that day. I remember thinking how he had seemed to shed whatever bitterness he once had for his old archrival, Muhammad Ali, who he had hooked up with for three legendary bouts and who had provoked Joe by calling him "ugly," "ignorant," an "Uncle Tom" and Lord knows what else. With the exception of the few playful jabs he took at Ali - or, as he would call him, "The Butterfly" - he no longer harbored the seething anger that once consumed him. At 65, he seemed to have arrived at a place of peace, even if the move from his old pad on the top floor of his North Broad Street gym had caused him some upheaval. While he told me he had not seen Ali for years - but understood that he was in declining health - he remembers how Ali once leaned in close to him and said, "Joe Frazier, we were baaaaaaaddddddddd.''

Joe picked another cherry from the bowl and added: "Now we are both granddaddies."

Upon hearing Joe Frazier had died Monday evening from liver cancer at age 67, I thought back to those few hours I spent with him that day. I had gotten there early and Joe was out somewhere shopping. According to his friend, Denise Menz, who had let me in, it was common for Joe to come back from his peregrinations through the city with outsized quantities of some item he had found a deal on - say, four cases of soda. "Sometimes a hand truck follows him off the elevator," said Menz, who explained that Joe had still not adjusted to not having the extra space he had when he was living at the gym. "I say to him, 'Joe, what are you going to do with this stuff?' "

So it was not surprising to her that when Joe showed up, it was with a pack of paper towels large enough to clean an oil spill. His handshake was firm, not the greeting of a man who had battled an array of health problems that included diabetes and high blood pressure for years. He had had eye surgery, but his vision remained poor. (He revealed in his autobiography that he was blind in one eye during his career.) Six operations had been performed on him since a 2002 car wreck had hampered his ability to climb stairs, which eventually forced him to abandon his old hideaway at the gym. Doctors had told him he should walk with a cane. Cognitively, he still seemed to be doing fine, even if his speech was slurred. Growing old had not been a summer cruise, but Joe just shrugged and said: "Conditioning helps out. Gotta keep your timing together. Cause you never know when somebody is going to try to push you around."

But the gravitational pull of his advancing years had not slowed Joe down. While the once-ubiquitous Ali had scaled down his appearances due to his ordeal with Parkinson's disease, Frazier became a hot property again with the help of his business manager, Les Wolff. In fact, just 2 days after I saw Frazier at his apartment, he was scheduled to fly to the United Kingdom for a series of appearances. It was a trip he was at once looking forward to and dreading, given that he was a confirmed white-knuckle flier. He explained to me that planes had spooked him ever since 14 American boxers had perished in a crash in Poland in 1980. One of them could have been his son, Marvis, then an aspiring Olympic heavyweight who Joe said had been schedule to be on the trip.

"I told him not to go," Joe told me. "Two weeks before that plane crash, I had a dream of a big fire. My whole family was burned up. All of them - gone. It was a house, not a plane, but I just had a bad feeling."

Sheepishly, Joe said of his impending journey to the UK: "If only there was a way I could snap my fingers and be here."

To an extent that would be hard to quantify, I think the book my late father did on the Ali-Frazier rivalry, "Ghosts of Manila,'' resurrected Joe in the eyes of the public. Dad had covered each of the three Ali bouts for Sports Illustrated, and had become fond of Joe, of whom he called in a 1971 SI piece "the finest gladiator - in the purest sense of the word - in heavyweight history." "Ghosts'' gave Joe his due, not just for his work in the ring but as a good man who still carried the deep wounds that Ali had inflicted upon him with his unending and altogether crude vilifications. Ali was perceived to be joking around - he looked upon it as a piece of promotional artifice - but it cut deeply into Joe, who only years later understood why Ali had behaved the way he did.

"The 'Butterfly' did that stuff whenever he was afraid," said Joe, as he continued to pick at the bowl of cherries. "He did it to get himself revved up. Remember, he did it with Sonny Liston before and some of those other cats. He knew I would put a whipping on his ass."

Joe chuckled. "He once said I would be nothing without him," he said. "But what would he have been without me?"

How would history have perceived Ali if Frazier had beaten him in their rubber match in Manila in 1975, if Joe had not been stopped by his chief second, Eddie Futch, from leaving his corner for the 15th round? I asked Joe: "What if . . . "

He paused before answering. "Good question," said Joe, whose eyes were so swollen that night that they resembled coin slots by the end of the 14th round. "What I have always wondered is if Ali would have come out for that round. He was on his stool, and he was going to stay there. But Ed was experienced and thought I had enough."

On the wall above the sofa was a photograph of a far better outcome: Ali buckling to the canvas in the 15th round of their first bout. Joe looked over at it and said, "There he goes!" Of his second meeting with Ali, during which Ali immobilized Frazier with clinches and won in a 12-ound decision, "The referee let him mug me." By the end of their third bout, Joe said, "It was time for both of us to get out." Frazier had two more bouts and then focused his attention on helping Marvis climb the heavyweight ladder to some handsome paydays. Of the close relationship he had with Marvis, who checked in with him each day, Joe told me: "Every man should have a son like him."

Joe picked up another cherry and said, "Come on and stay for ribs."

The sun had set on the Philadelphia skyline outside his apartment window. As I remember, Joe wondered what would become of his gym, which had been so full of memories for him. When young men would come in off the dodgy North Philadelphia streets and learned how to box there, he could see in them the early arc of his own life, which began as the son of a sharecropper in South Carolina and included a period in New York he when "borrowed cars without giving them back." He came to Philadelphia, worked in a slaughterhouse and found a sanctuary under the wing of his old trainer, Yank Durham, who would warn him in that grave baritone: "I want to see you in that gym today!"

Joe frowned. "I was born into animosity, bigotry, hatred and 'white-water/colored-water,'" he said. "I look back on those days and think, 'Well, you are a better man because of them.' The world has changed where we now have a black president. But young kids still have to have a place to go."

Ribs were baking in the oven. With the aroma of them hanging in the air, Joe smiled and said he would like to reunite "The Knockouts," if only he were able to stand on stage without the fear of falling. Somewhere packed away are copies of some old .45s the group cut for Capitol. As he remembered back on those days, the songbird in him once again began to soar.

"I faced the man.

"I had a plan.

"And I fought them my way . . . "


Send email to kramm@phillynews.com

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