Smokin’ Joe Frazier lost the fight against cancer yesterday, at the age of 67. I’m saddened by his death. You see, I was lucky enough to get to know Joe Frazier years ago, and I can attest that he was one of the most polite gentlemen I’ve ever known.
Of course, he isn’t the only fighter I got to know in the summer if 1983, as the PR firm where I worked ramped up to the World Boxing Council’s 20th Anniversary gala dinner at the United Nations (September 20, 1983). I spent six weeks crisscrossing the country with fighters who were promoting the WBC’s foundation on boxing safety before the dinner, and another week in New York around the event itself coordinating press access to the fighters. (It was just my second national press tour, and I was more than a little scared — but the gentlemen of the WBC put me at ease quickly, something I didn’t expect given my pre-conceived ideas of what a boxer would be like.)
Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Leon Sphinx, Ken Norton, Sugar Ray Leonard, Danny “Little Red” Lopez, and Masahiko Harada joined Ryan O’Neil and Dustin Hoffman as the media spokesmen for our events. Ali, of course, was the most sought-after for photos, autographs and interviews, with Frazier a close second. One of my jobs was keeping Frazier and Ali apart — no one wanted their legendary rivalry to explode in front of the cameras. (That job was pretty easy — Frazier was definitely in the “If he’s in LA, send me to NY” camp. The hard part of the job? Getting Ali anywhere on time — he’d stop to sign autographs and pose for any kid, anywhere, anytime, especially a handicapped kid.)
Before the tour, I learned the basics about Frazier, of course. Stats from the legendary bouts with Foreman, Ali, Jimmy Ellis and others. How he’d had to be forcibly restrained from going back for a 15th round with Ali after officials disqualified him during the “Thrilla in Manilla” because both his eyes were bloody and swollen shut. (I’m not sure he ever got over that one. I heard Ali tell him that the way he felt after that fight was “as close to being dead as he’d ever felt”, while Foreman insisted that he could have taken him if his trainer Eddie Futch hadn’t stopped him. )
But I learned a lot of other things about Joe Frazier, too. For instance, he learned the names of waitresses and bus boys and limo drivers, and remembered to add a word of thanks to his generous tips. He called the hotel room maid, “Ma’am”, and said “please” when he asked for something.
His stories about leaving home at 15 after angering a white farmer, working as a kosher butcher and in a Coca-Cola bottling plant, and the injury to his left arm he got running from the family hog (leaving it permanently cocked as if for his famous left hook) put the lie to the common belief that his limited education made him a man who couldn’t communicate well. His joy at competing (and winning) in the Olympics and getting to travel far beyond Beaufort, South Carolina was infectious. He urged me to “Get a passport. Go somewhere. You’ll never be the same.” He was right.
He was a sucker for stray animals, sick children, and old men who cornered him regularly to talk about sports and the past. He had scant patience for anyone who wasn’t willing to put their money where their mouth was, work hard, and wait their turn.
We were going into a TV station in California — I forget which one — to tape a show, and he saw a couple of autograph-hunting young men shove their way to the front of a waiting line. So he picked them both up by the back of their blue jeans and carried them to the back of the line, where he deposited them with the admonition, “I don’t like cheaters.”
I remember two things most about Joe Frazier, though. One is the night that a dozen of us came out of Tavern on the Green around midnight after a long dinner with reporters and WBC officials to find that the cars hired to take us back to the hotels where we were staying (we were split between the old El Dorado and the Waldorf) weren’t there. Joe Frazier looked at the group: Ali, Sphinx, Lopez, and Foreman were there along with several others, and said, “What? Y’all afraid of a walk in the park on a beautiful night?”
I’d gone to grad school in New York, and had never dared to so much as set foot inside the park after dark. But I knew as well as Joe Frazier did that no self-respecting mugger would approach that group for anything other than an autograph — or if he did, he wouldn’t live to tell the tale. And I’ll never forget how beautiful it was, or the laughter and the chatter from men who truly were champions that I was privy to that September night in Central Park.
The other thing I’ll never forget is the fact that the taunts and racially tinged insults that Ali had hurled at Frazier a decade before (“gorilla”, “Uncle Tom”) still hurt. The answering machine at his home 1983 carried the message, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, I done the job, he knows, look and see”.
Frazier had not only respected Ali, he’d stood by him when he was banned from boxing and in disgrace for his stance on the Vietnam war. Frazier went so far as to ask President Nixon, a lapsed Quaker himself, to pardon Ali for his stance as a conscientious objector, and he refused a huge payday to join the WBA to compete for the title that was taken away from Ali when he was convicted of being a draft dodger.
He took Ali’s taunts to heart. (It was good to read in the tributes that have poured in since his death that Ali had softened his stance and shown nothing but respect for his former rival, at least in press reports today.) It showed me the power of words, and that my mother’s assurances that “words can never hurt you” was quite simply wrong.
But aside for public appearances like the dinner at Tavern on the Green, Frazier simply pretended Ali didn’t exist during the time I spent with them that summer and fall.
The invitations for the WBC’s 20th anniversary dinner were 11X14 posters designed to look like fight posters. I had asked Ali to sign one for the physical therapy room at Scottish Rite Hospital in Dallas, and he took it on himself to get every single World Champion at the dinner to sign it. He approached Frazier last, after he was already seated at the dinner table.
Ali walked up to Frazier after weeks of avoiding each other and he didn’t bother asking for the autograph, he just put the poster down in front of him, said, “It’s for some handicapped kids.” Frazier signed without hesitation, leaving a butter stain on the left side of the poster from where it rested on his bread plate.
It wouldn’t have occurred to him to say no to his nemesis — not if it was for a child. And I think that’s what I will remember most about both of them: they wanted the world to be a better place for children of all races, and they wanted to show impoverished kids that there was a way out of poverty that didn’t involve crime or drugs.
I hope Scottish Rite still has the poster I framed for them when I got back from that trip — and I hope they realized that it is a one-of-a-kind, priceless artifact. Joe Frazier told me it was the only document since the contracts for his last fight with Ali where anyone would ever see his signature and Ali’s on the same piece of paper.