DYB Joe Frazier article
Disabled Dealer Magazine Mid Atlantic Region March 2003
The Winner’s Circle
An Interview with Smokin’ Joe Frazier
The Former Heavy Weight Boxing Champion Discusses his Illustrious Career with David Block
As Smoking’ Joe Frazier and I shake hands, I am almost stunned that his grip is tighter than most people half his age. I spontaneously feel his solid rock-hard biceps and am in awe that this powerhouse is a 59-year-old diabetic.
As my interview with him begins and as we relax, I ask him to make a fist. First, he makes a fist with his right hand and then his left. Both fists are hard. As I hold his left fist, I see that his left arm is cocked, ready to throw one of those lethal left hooks that made him famous.
That left hook knocked Muhammad Ali to the canvas the first time they fought, Monday, March 8, 1971, in Madison Square Garden. That left hook helped Frazier win the fight, which made him the first person to ever defeat Muhammad Ali. That left hook helped him secure an impressive boxing record of 32 wins (27 of which were knock outs), 4 losses and one draw. Frazier’s left hook is one reason he dominated the boxing ring as heavy weight champion from 1970 to 1973. That left hook earned him a gold medal at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. That bone crunching left hook led to all those successes, plus many others – and now that fist rests in my hand for nearly 30 memorable seconds.
Afterwards, the interview resumes. Between my questions and his answers we make small talk. He sees that I am nervously taking notes, while intermittently glancing at my mini tape recorder to make sure that it is recording. Strength and power become the subject of our small talk, and he asks me to give him another firm handshake, so I oblige. Then, surprised by my temerity, I ask him to play a game of “mercy,” where we lock hands and try to bend each other’s fingers back. We call it a draw after a minute, yet I know he could have beaten me easily. He was being nice.
Yes, Joe Frazier is a nice guy, but he was never that way in the ring. There he was all business. His goals were to win, and to be world champion. Frazier defined these goals as ‘getting the job done’.
At age 8, Frazier decided that he was going to box. While his family was watching boxing on TV, one of his uncles said Joe Frazier ‘was going to be another Joe Louis’. The 8-year-old Frazier loved that idea and he was convinced that he could make that happen. That became ‘his mission in life’ as the cliche goes. Regardless of whether his uncle was serious, regardless of whether his family thought he could box, the young Frazier decided at that point that he was going to be the world heavyweight boxing champion.
Being a Black youngster in Beaufort, South Carolina in the 1950s certainly had its disadvantages for the ambitious Frazier. There, the law forbade him to set foot in gyms and playgrounds. But the resourceful Frazier put together his own punching bag. He hung it on a tree in his yard and hit it an hour a day, every day.
A few months later, the young Frazier permanently injured his left arm in an accident he had with a hog that his parents kept.
“I had a problem with the hog,” said Frazier. “Mama warned me, more times than one, to stay away from it. It was vicious.” Yet one day, Frazier wanted to have some fun, so he hit it with a stick unaware that the pigpen gate was still open.
“The hog chased me and I fell and hit my elbow on a brick,” said Frazier. The accident left his arm permanently bent.
As a boxer, Frazier used this accident to his advantage in developing his lethal left hook. “I’d compensate off the hook and the bent left arm, on the basis, most guys who have to throw a left hook, have to bend it first or right after a jab,” said Frazier. “You have to step with the shot to make sure it hooks after a jab. I didn’t have to bend my arm, so I’d just hook him.” In short, Frazier had the advantage because he never had to waste time bending his arm because it was already in position to throw hook shots.
Frazier adjusted to this permanent injury by following the example of his ‘big strong daddy,’ Rubin Frazier. Rubin’s arm had been shot off. “Dad was always a strong guy, so he compensated,” said Frazier. “He never complained. It was something he had to live with, so he made the best of it.”
One problem Frazier dealt with in the beginning of his boxing career was getting people to believe in him enough to be his sponsors. He was just under six feet tall, which is small for a heavyweight.
“Throughout my whole dog gone Amateur career, people wouldn’t stop to look at me,” said Frazier. He said they made the mistake of not realizing that: “Size doesn’t make a man powerful, it’s his heart and his ability. Look at Rocky Marciano – God bless him – and Joe Louis – God bless him – they were small guys but they got the job done.” One way Frazier handled this frustration was remembering what his parents taught him. Frazier explained: “I knew I had the good Lord on my side. Mom and Dad taught me about Jesus. I prayed to him all the time. It helped me get the job done.”
Frazier preferred fighting bigger boxers because that enabled him to get close to them to deliver his left hook. One of his toughest opponents was the Argentinean, Oscar Bonavena, who was about Frazier’s height. Although Frazier won his two fights against Bonavena, (Wednesday, September 21, 1966 and Tuesday, December 10, 1968) “getting the job done” was difficult.
“Oscar was a short guy,” said Frazier. “He slugged like I did. He had shoulders like Mac trucks.” It was difficult for Frazier to get close to him. In fact the first time they fought, Bonavena knocked him to the canvas twice in the first round.
Ironically, after Frazier won Olympic gold in ’64, finding sponsorship was just as difficult as ever.
Frazier briefly strayed from the subject of sponsorship to emphasize that winning Olympic Gold was one of his proudest boxing moments. “That was a great feeling,” said Frazier. “I was the only boxer who won a gold medal for the United States (in ’64).” Originally, Frazier was an Olympic alternate to Buster Mathis who had beaten him out for the Olympic spot, but due to personal problems, Frazier went in his place. One of Frazier’s most vindicating moments as a pro was Monday, March 4th, 1968, when he fought Mathis and knocked him out in the 11th round.
Shortly after the Olympics, Frazier turned pro, and the Reverend William Gray helped him get sponsorship. Frazier is still grateful to Gray. Frazier is also grateful to his first trainer, Yank Durham, whom he regarded as a second father. “Yank believed in me,” said Frazier.
Frazier’s problems with his size and finding sponsorship paled in comparison to boxing with a cataract in his left eye. He realized that he had it after the ’64 Olympics, but refused to let that stop him. Frazier developed a strategy for boxing with the cataract. He hit his opponent with his left hand while covering his left eye with his right hand. Then he would strike his opponent with his right hand while his left hand covered his bad eye.
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Before each fight, boxers had their vision tested by reading eye charts. The normal procedure was for boxers to cover the left eye with the left hand, and read the chart. Then they covered the right eye with the right hand and read the chart again.
Frazier’s strategy was to cover his bad left eye with his left hand and read the chart with his good right eye. When the doctor asked him to read with the other eye, he quickly switched hands, using his right hand to cover his bad left eye once again. With his bad eye still covered, he appeared to be reading the chart with the other eye.
Frazier said that he was fortunate to be friends with two 2 ophthalmologists, Dr. Myron Yanoff and Dr. Katowitz. “They helped guard my secret,” said Frazier. “They gave me eye drops that widened the pupils.” Frazier knew that if his secret ever leaked out, his boxing career would be over. “I have no problem if people know now, I’m not fighting any more,” said Frazier.
In the late ‘60s, World Heavyweight Boxing Champion, Muhammad Ali, was stripped of the title because he refused to go to Vietnam. On Monday, February 16, 1970, Frazier and Jimmy Ellis met in the finals of a tournament where the winner would be crowned champion. Frazier knocked out Ellis in the fifth round, becoming the undisputed World Heavyweight Boxing Champion.
In discussing the first time he fought Ali, Monday March 8, 1971, Frazier said: “Muhammad was going around running his mouth. He had a program of saying (Frazier cleared his throat and imitated Ali) ‘Joe Frazier you’re going to fall in 9! That round is mine! You’re going to fall in 6 because I ain’t playing no tricks!’ The point about it was not to let those words come true with me anyway. He got on the ropes, I smacked him off the ropes. He was trying to play that rope- a- dope. He was covering up that body keeping from getting smacked out there.” (Ali’s “rope-a-dope” was a ploy to exhaust his opponents. Ali leaned against the ropes, covered up his body and face and let his opponents punch him until they got tired. That ploy was unsuccessful with Frazier.) After the victory, Frazier’s 10-year-old son Marvis, wrote the poem Smokin’ Joe printed in his autobiography:
“Fly like a butterfly,
Sting like a bee,
Joe Frazier is the only one,
Who can beat Muhammad Ali.”
On Monday Jan. 22, 1973 in Kingston, Jamaica, George Foreman knocked out Frazier in the second round to become the new heavyweight boxing champion. It was his first loss as a professional. Frazier thought that he would be able to handle Foremen like he did his other big opponents. Foreman was a lot stronger so unlike the other big boxers, Foreman was able to push Frazier away from him, thus preventing Frazier getting in close range to deliver his lethal left hook.
Frazier lost his next two matches to Ali, Monday January 28, 1974 and Wednesday October 1, 1975. Frazier also lost a rematch to Foreman on Tuesday, June 15, 1976.
Some sports announcers have commented that during Ali’s last fight with Frazier, “The Thrilla in Manila,” Frazier’s devastating blows did take their toll on the victorious Ali. They reported Ali’s remark that the fight was so brutal, it made him feel as though he was going to die.
Even after Frazier lost the heavyweight title, he still won some great fights. One momentous victory for Frazier was winning a return match against Jerry Quarry, Monday June 17, 1974. On and off from ’68 to ’74, Quarry was the number one ranked heavyweight boxer in the world. The first time Frazier and Quarry fought, Monday, June 23, 1969, Frazier beat him in 7 rounds. In the return match 5 years later, Frazier gave him a worse beating. By the fifth round he severely bloodied Quarry and the referee was forced to stop the fight.
Because Frazier lost the title and lost the second fight to Ali, some people assumed that he was washed up. They assumed that he would also lose the return match to Quarry. They were wrong – the victorious Frazier proved that his career was far from over.
Passing The Torch
At the “Thrilla in Manila” the 15-year-old Marvis was the water boy in his father’s corner. After the fight, he decided to box, so he could bring the championship back into the Frazier family. Joe Frazier was unhappy with Marvis’ decision to follow in his footsteps. Marvis said: “The more he tried to discourage me, the more I wanted to prove to him that this is what I wanted to do. He said ‘why do you want to fight? Be a doctor, a lawyer, anything but a fighter. Do something else.’”
In his autobiography, Smokin’ Joe, Joe Frazier said that he boxed for a living so that his family could live a comfortable life and Marvis wouldn’t have to become a fighter.
As a professional boxer, Marvis Frazier won 19 fights and lost 2. His losses were to Larry Holmes for the world heavyweight championship. His other loss was to then-unknown boxer, Iron Mike Tyson. “When I fought Tyson, he was the underdog,” said Marvis. “That was his first national televised bout.” Tyson knocked him out about 30 seconds into the first round.
One of Marvis’ proudest wins was defeating James Broad. As amateurs, Broad beat Marvis out of a 1980 Olympic spot and would have represented the USA in Moscow. (The USA boycotted those games.) Another memorable fight for Marvis was beating James “Bone Crusher” Smith. During the 5th round, Smith broke Marvis’ jaw. After the round Marvis’ cousin tried to convince him to stop the fight. Marvis remembered: “I said, ‘You’re not stopping nothing! I’m kicking this guy’s tail!’”
Recently, Joe Frazier’s daughter, Jacqueline fought Muhammad Ali’s daughter but lost. Describing his sister’s four championship belts, Marvis said, ”She has brought some championships back to the Frazier family.”
Even though Joe Frazier and Marvis are retired from the ring, they can be found training boxers at the Joe Frazier Gym in North Philadelphia. At the gym, the Frazier family helps children.
“We counsel kids,” said Marvis. “We talk with them about problems. Our door is open to them, we help them with homework, we give advice. We are like a boys club, a girls club, a big brother and a big sister. We treat the children as if they were our own. Every child has potential, no matter what background they have.”
When Smokin’ Joe is not at the gym, he is often engaged in one of his favorite pastimes, singing with his band, White Smoke. “I love to sing,” said Frazier. He concluded the interview by singing a tune.
For more information log onto www.joefraziergym.com or call 215 221 5303.
Copyright 2003 David Y. Block