Preserving Frazier’s gym

Posted: June 08, 2012

JOE FRAZIER got into a fight, growing up in Beaufort, S.C. Beat the bejabbers out of a guy of the white persuasion. Had ‘til sundown to get out of that hardscrabble town. Headed north.

By car? Bus? Train?

"He rode the dog," Martha Frazier-Rhodan said yesterday, confirming the story with a wistful smile and a head nod. The dog?

"Greyhound bus," she said. "That's what Joe always called it. The dog."

Rode the dog to New York, where his brother Tommy lived. New York was too loud, too crowded, too cold. So he drifted south to Philadelphia. Settled in North Philly, near his sister, Martha. Not far from Temple University.

Martha's husband took Joe to the 23rd PAL gym because idle hands are the devil's workshop and because Joe wanted to lose some weight and because he thought he could become the heavyweight champion of the whole cotton-picking world.

Duke Dugent polished that awesome left hook and Frazier went on to become an Olympic gold-medal winner. Did it with a busted thumb. Came home with that medal around his neck , his thumb in a cast and lint in his pockets. Pretty soon, 14 businessmen and a cop named Joe Hand formed Cloverlay, to back the fighter. And 2 years later, Hand picked a building at Broad and Glenwood and transformed it into a boxing gym.

"It was a dance hall," Hand recalled. "Had Gardens in the name. Maybe the Crystal Gardens. My mother used to go to dances there. Had to put in some steel beams for support."

Frazier sold it before he died and it's the In-and-Out Furniture and Bedding Factory Outlet now, the windows plastered with gaudy signs, including one that brays "Knockout Prices."

Some Temple students cringed when they saw those ugly signs and worried that the next owner might take a wrecking ball to the building. The National Trust for Historic Preservation got involved, and shazam, the gym is now on the list of America's 11 most endangered historic places.

Which is what brought Martha, Joe's only surviving sibling, to the Architecture Building on the Temple campus yesterday, along with Hand and a phalanx of well-meaning folks who would like to save the gym and restore it to something the community can use.

Hand told the crowd that Frazier was not the best fighter in the world. "But nobody had more heart," he said. He described the gym in its heyday, the brick walls mostly covered with photo murals donated by Sports Illustrated.

Then it was Martha's turn to speak and she talked about her brother being the most lovable, most forgiving person. She thanked the people for wanting to save the gym, but she saw it as saving her brother.

"Who has a crystal ball?" she asked. "If he'd known you'd want to do something good for the community with it, he might have just given it to the city.

“I still live on 13th street," she said later. "Joe would come by, twice a month, just to talk. He loved the neighborhood."

Hand is working on erecting a statue of Frazier, and is already up to his kneecaps in red tape. How does Martha feel about a statue of her famous brother?

"We'd love that," she said. "But if it's a choice, I'd pick restoring the gym. Give some young people a chance to achieve something, to become someone."

Frazier's will has not been publicized, so we're not sure he didn't rule out a statue or other tributes, backlash from the ugly Rocky sculpture.

"I don't get involved in that," Martha said politely. "I was there when he was born. I was there when he died. We loved each other and that is good enough for me."

So the first punch has been thrown in the preservation battle. Some Temple students will petition the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places to protect the gym. Then comes an appeal to the National Register of Historic Places.

And then the toughest part of the fight, a search for philanthropic folks who want to honor Frazier and give something back to the community, a museum perhaps, or a handsome new gym.

It is a longshot. Somewhere in the Buster Douglas-Mike Tyson neighborhood, 42-to-1. But we all know how that turned out. It will behoove the well-meaning preservationists to remember something Frazier said often. There are no shortcuts in boxing. n

Contact Stan Hochman at stanrhoch@comcast.net

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