|RIP Smokin' Joe|
Obituaries had been written well in advance It’s an unfortunate task in media to be charged with; summarize the life of a significant public figure with inconspicuous beginnings, career defining moments and the complexities that provided ‘the stuff in between’. The stuff being the life away from the lights, sound bites and footage. What is being reflected upon through these five-ten minute bios is something that gives commentary to the archives; though they can never completely capture who the person was. They’re removed from the person just as all of us truly were. We admired from afar.
Simultaneously, those who dotted every ‘I’ and crossed every ‘t’ along the way as this individual set upon his life course are reaching back to the days they witnessed his best and worst moments in public view. These writers, analysts and hosts will bring us closer to what they heard, read and seen directly from the man himself; even those words and actions that may have never meant to have seen the light of day. The words will be poignant, they’ll be honest and they’ll do their best to bring back the raw emotions of those famous nights so that the people who lived through them can feel them all over again.
When you sit down and think about it, few people in sports have this kind of effect. A head-nod respect from those who rooted against him while championing another. A child-like recollection of his fiercest battles from the biggest admirers. An encyclopedia’s worth of anecdotes from the media that covered him. Whether it’s passing time talking or the realization that athletes will leave this world like the rest of us, this rare effect hits across generations because these figures managed to reach out beyond the borders of their sport and make even the least interested person remember their names.
We remember Smokin’ Joe Frazier for all sorts of reasons, but the three that stand out are an enduring rivalry, a devastating left hook and a demeanor that belies some of the violence he partook in.
A trilogy of fights with Muhammad Ali made him famous outside of boxing’s most fervent fans, for better or worse. To have faced racial indignities, even from Ali’s taunts and proclamations, without publicly displaying a tinge of anger or fear spoke much to Frazier’s spirit in and out of the ring.
To have slugged his way to the top of the mountain of his profession, yet doing so while not having the so-called prerequisites to be a champion - too small, lack of defense, less of a tactician - spoke to a work ethic and relentless desire to write his own chapter in the history books.
If you met him at any point away from the ring itself, you’d have a hard time thinking that Frazier was one of the greatest to have ever committed legalized violence. Even if the Ali trilogy embittered him - and let’s be for real, imagine if you were the focus of such vile trash talk - he still managed to bring about warmth in the room. You knew there would be stories, there would be photos and for the fortunate few, there might have been some singing. He was an at-peace-with-himself, happy to be there kind of showman, decades after being the stalking boogeyman in the minds of his opponents.
I understand how people of my generation and younger may have little reverence for boxing; mainly because of the unrelenting comparisons to mixed martial arts and the accepted crooked business that accompanies the sport. However, another culprit is something that we lack the courage to admit at times; no one wants to teach us who these men (and women, lest not forget) were. As the years fade, it seems as if very few of us were blessed to have had people provide those lessons. In my case, my parents were (dad)/are (mom) old enough to tell their families and friends about seeing the legends from Sugar Ray Robinson to Mike Tyson in person, not just on closed-circuit television. They kept me curious about the athletes that set the stage for thousands of kids to try to emulate them years alter.
In many ways, being born and raised in Philadelphia meant that boxing was part of your DNA; whether as a fighter or a fan. Considering my parents’ knowledge and recollection of the greats, the famed trilogy unearthed reflections that countered the romanticized versions from sports’ leading voices. Mainstream history is written by the winners, but when you dig deeper, you find that not every black boxing fan sided with Ali in those battles. And as the remembrances roll in today, you discover that Frazier was a imposing figure in his own right; his success was just as much why the trilogy has the status bestowed upon it as Ali’s.
With my parents’ stories, I was reminded that some wanted to fight for the heavyweight crown, a payday, a better life... civil rights... with a quiet determination, a soul-piercing stare and a lunch pail in hand. Frazier embodied that in such a contrasting way that it’s almost forgotten because he lost the second and third fights. Because George Foreman dominated him in their title fight. Because Howard Cosell essentially birthed a catchphrase.
Meeting Joe Frazier in 2008 was and still remains the most unnerving, but amazing moment of my sports media career. It was the Kelly Pavlik-Bernard Hopkins bout in Atlantic City and Smokin’ Joe came to the press lounge at Boardwalk Hall. I appeared calm, but like a duck, you couldn’t see underneath the surface where its feet flap like mad. Someone I’ve heard, read and watched archived fights of for years was just feet away from me. My parents were essentially in the same room as him, thinking about it.
A fellow writer, who had covered boxing for years, coaxed me to get out of my seat to shake his hand, but I felt like I was bothering him. I did, sheepishly, still thinking he still has some power in that left hook if I made the slightest (unintentional) error. If my memory serves me correctly, he said “You’re name’s Jason? How ya doing, young man?”
Closer to the main event, the same writer and I walked out towards the ring, steps behind Frazier, his confidants and some amazed fans. We helped a few people take pictures with him; it was sports tourism at its unexpected finest. The writer asked if I wanted to get a photo with him. The nerves didn’t go away as I was just happy with the memory (or still fearful of those aged, but huge hands of stone). Joe waved me on, put his arm around me and flashed a smile.
The photo remains, the credential of the fight stored away and the shirt I wore was eventually washed (thought about sealing it and never wearing it again). Yet, more indelible was the memory of that night; watching media members sitting around him like it was story time in kindergarten, fans in awe of knowing a legend was in the building.
I think of that now, wondering how many other people he met over the years are trying to remember the details of their moments. They were brief for so many of us that were fortunate to have the memories, but they are the ones we hold on to so strongly because we were just that lucky.
What else is there to say, really?