Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Remembering a Philly Hero

In 1976, the movie Rocky hit the big screen and a hero was born. The film showed the heart and soul of Philadelphia pride, the personification of the underdog who could show the world he was so much more. A fighter who worked hard until the very end, and with a bit of dreaming and a lot of heart, goes the distance in a fight and wins in life. The thing is that the hero representing these noble values in that movie was the cinematic depiction of a real man. This man was a true hero of boxing, who was the heavyweight champion, and represented Philadelphia in the ring. He showed the world what hard work, dedication, and Philly heart is all about. 

This man is the late “Smokin” Joe Frazier. Frazier was the greatest heavyweight to fight out of Philadelphia. Check out his record of 37 fights, of which he won 32 -- 27 by knock out! In 1970, Frazier won the heavyweight title by fighting Jimmy Ellis, who he knocked down twice in the fourth round, something that had never happened before in Ellis’ career. Frazier became the World Boxing Association (WBA) Heavyweight Champion and kept his title until 1973. 

During his reign as champion, Frazier stepped into the ring with Muhammad Ali in 1971. Ali returned to the ring after a three-year absence, his boxing license having been revoked for his refusal to be drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. Ali used psychological warfare (which he was great at) to push Frazier to the edge, but what he really was doing was trying to hype the fight and get in Joe’s head, as he did with all of his opponents going back to Sonny Liston in the 60’s. On the night of their fight, it was skill, will, and hatred, at least on Joe’s part, that made for what was simply called "The Fight of the Century.” 

Joe Frazier looked like a machine designed to do nothing but fight that night. In the eleventh round, he hurt Ali badly, and I won’t spoil the round for you but keep an eye out, because at one point Joe Frazier knocked Ali down with a great left hook that left Ali's jaw looking like he was trying to harbor a baseball in his mouth. 

At the end of the night, Frazier won a unanimous decision, becoming the first man to ever beat the self-proclaimed “greatest of all time”, Muhammad Ali. Frazier eventually lost his title to George Foreman, one of, if not, the hardest puncher in boxing history, in a fight that only lasted a few rounds. He went on to lose two rematches with Muhammad Ali including the “Thrilla in Manila", but their fights were arguably the most epic trilogy of fights in heavyweight boxing history. 

With all his accomplishments, Frazier should have gotten so much respect in the boxing world, especially in Philadelphia. Sadly, only after Frazier’s death were there plans made to erect a statue in his honor. An almost eerie irony is that the sculptor chosen to create the statue, Larry Nowlan, died at age 48 shortly after he was given the assignment. Then there was then back and forth drama over Joe Frazier’s gym. Last I checked the gym was purchased by Broad Enterprises Group L.L.C. in 2011, and was then leased to a discount furniture store that now appears to be closed. After efforts from preservationists and local politicians, Joe Frazier's Gym was added to the National Register of Historic Places in April 2013. In April 2018, a portion of Glenwood Avenue near the gym was named "Smokin' Joe Frazier Boulevard". 

Frazier has two legacies. First, he is a great example that hard work and passion are not always recognized and rewarded like they should be in life. The other legacy, the one I want to remember Joe Frazier for, is he was not only what Philly boxing and sports is all about, but he was what a fighter in life is all about. He was an exceedingly kind and respectful man, but the night he faced Ali, he showed how dangerous he could be. Joe Frazier is a reminder that when life gives you big challenges take everything you have and knock them down. 

There are a number of reasons why, at times, Frazier gets overlooked by sports fans outside of the world of boxing. Joe had a feud with one of the most beloved athletes (not just boxers) of all time. Muhammad Ali was named the “Sportsman of the Century” back in 1999 by Sports illustrated. So, it is not a huge surprise Joe never got recognition of Ali (most athletes never did or will). 
I would suggest watching the documentary “Thrilla in Manilla”. This film does a good job of telling Joe’s side of the story during the epic trilogy and feud with Ali. It also tells Joe’s story in a way where you see he was a great and humble guy, who not just carved out a niche for himself in boxing, he knocked down the door of boxing immortality with his left hook. 

What happened to the legacy of Smokin’ Joe is terribly disappointing. The fact that the statue of Rocky Balboa, which appeared in the third and fifth Rocky movies, is perceived as a symbol of Philadelphia’s heart is not a disgrace, it just leaves out the story of one of the greats in heavyweight history in his own city. A statue of Joe Frazier should have been erected prior to the great champion’s death. The next time you are in Philadelphia, remember to check out Joe Frazier’s statue at the Xfinity Live! in South Philly in addition to the Rocky statue, both are well worth a visit. 

I think Joe Frazier should have gotten a lot more love in the city that prides itself on brotherly love. To the boxing public that knows anything about great heavyweights, Joe Frazier is a name that always comes up. Randall “Tex” Cobb (the heavyweight contender that made Howard Cosell quit boxing on air after watching him take an unnecessary beating for an entire fight against then champion Larry Holmes) was a guy who wanted to learn how to fight. As the story goes, he took a bus to Philadelphia from Texas. When he got off the bus, he saw two guys, who he referred to as “two winos” or something like that, start fighting. When Cobb saw they were throwing perfect left hooks, he thought to himself, I came to the right place. In the land of great left hooks, Joe Frazier had the greatest left hook of anyone from Philadelphia and certainly one of the best in all of boxing history.

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