By: George H. Hanson Jr., Esq.
The smoke is gone but the fire burns. If Joe Frazier did not tell everyone that he was from Beaufort, South Carolina, we would have claimed him as our own in Jamaica. His journey of overcoming and making lemonade when life handed him sour lemons is truly a story that we immigrants find redeeming. No surprise that I was well-aware of Joe Frazier before ever setting foot in this country. My countrymen sang the catchy little ditty— “Joe Frazier, sharper than a razor……”—which was forever etched in my mind. As fate would prescribe we moved from Kingston to Philadelphia—the home of the legendary Smokin’ Joe Frazier and I immersed myself in the sweet science. I would eventually meet this great man—sometimes eyeing him from across the ring in the corner of a few of my opponents as I made my way through the amateur ranks. Gracious, warm and dignified he was everything that one would want in a hero—a pleasant man who metamorphosed into a relentless pugilist sedulous in his pursuit of rendering another man comatose on the canvas. Yet, he was just as nice outside the ring as he was vicious inside “his office”—the squared circle in which he earned millions.
It is 7pm and I just returned from saying goodbye at the first of two viewings at the Wells Fargo Center – 3801 S. Broad St., Philadelphia. They came from all walks of life – Black, White, Latino, young, old, white collar, blue collar, no collar—wearing brims, baseball caps, kufis and skullies—all there to say their final goodbyes to the man who represented us all. to the man who represented all of us so gallantly in the ring with his unbelievable courage, hardwork, perseverance and dedication. We all identified with Smokin’ Joe and a part of us died on Monday. The Smoke is gone but the fire is still burning as he will live forever in our hearts, in our minds and in our stories. Rest in Peace Champ. I am still trying to accept that the “Smoke” is gone! I don’t know if I have ever met another human with more heart, courage and tenacity as Joe Frazier. Find the word “courage” in the dictionary and you will see a picture of him smiling back at you!!The Smoke is gone but the fire burns! It will burn forever in our hearts, in our minds and in our stories as it raged bobbing and weaving in the form of a short, squat and muscular gloved gladiator in boxing ring for 17 glorious years (1964 – 1981)—causing grown men to wilt under its intense heat. If I were going to war and had to choose between an M-16 and Joe Frazier, I would select Frazier. Machine guns jam, misfire and oftentimes overheat. But Smokin’ Joe Frazier was always ready for action—a lean, mean fighting machine hell-bent on destruction and separating foes from their senses fighting until they succumbed or his heart stopped. His courage, intestinal fortitude and “never say quit” spirit inspired millions including me!
It is ironic that his viewing is today—Veterans Day. Because, Frazier fought, scratching and clawing in that war called Life and was victorious. Hailing from Beaufort, South Carolina, he worked in the cotton fields from sun-up to sun-down before heading North at the age of fifteen in search of a better life. Landing in the City of Brotherly Love—he found employment in a slaughterhouse pursuing his passion for the sweet science after he clocked out. Frazier made the 1964 Olympic team as an alternate having lost to Buster Mathis Sr. Unfortunately, Mathis broke his hand in sparring and Frazier took his spot and won the Gold medal in glorious fashion—fighting with a broken left thumb in the finals. Frazier’s courage, character and indomitable will which had been cultivated in the scorching summer sun of Beaufort allowed him to overcome his physical pain and stand on the Gold Medal platform.
The coffin with his trademark black cowboy hat on top, rested at center ice of the Well Fargo’s Center with a copy of the poster of his first fight with Muhammad Ali—The Greatest Event in Sports History—standing guard to the left. Flanking the right was an autographed poster-size picture of the young pugilist Smokin’ Joe Frazier decked out in boxing gloves beaming a 1000-watt smile. I watched as Judge Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, looking splendid in an all-white suit, greeted everyone who came to honor her father. Then one by one they made their way down through the cordoned off section to the closed casket stopping momentarily heads bowed in silence feeling the mystical presence of the Smoke—before moving along.
The City of Philadelphia never paid homage to this remarkable man who was the personification of all the noble qualities that are revered, packaged and marketed under the brand—Philadelphia Fighter. Frazier, courageous, tough, resilient and indestructible was everything that represented this tough gritty blue-collar town. Working in a slaughterhouse and winning the heavyweight championship made him a legend. Yet despite never leaving—building his eponymous gym in the heart of a North Philadelphia ghetto and being an ambassador for this historic city there isn’t a street, avenue, lane or cul-de-sac that bears his name. A statue of Rocky, a fictional character based on journeyman Chuck “The Bayonne Bleeder” Wepner, and played by Sylvester Stallone in the 1976 blockbuster stands outside the Philadelphia Art Museum—near the steps that Frazier sprinted up in completion of his roadwork during training.
In thirty-seven fights, Frazier compiled an impressive record of 32 wins – 4 losses – 1 draw – 27 kos losing only to two men—Muhammad Ali and George Foreman—they both beat him twice. Joining the punch-for-pay ranks on August 16, 1965 he summarily disposed of four-fight veteran Woody Goss in the opening round of their scheduled four-rounder at the Philadelphia Convention Center. His was a meteoric rise as he knocked out ten more opponents before rugged Oscar Bonavena went the distance losing a majority 10-round decision on September 21, 1966. On March 4, 1968 , in only his twentieth fight he captured a version of the heavyweight title— stripped from Ali for refusing induction in the US Army—by stopping his Olympic trials’ nemesis Buster Mathis in the eleventh round of their scheduled 15-rounder.
Frazier would make nine successful title defenses including the historic win—The Fight of the Century—over Muhammad Ali in the first match of their epic trilogy on March 8, 1971 in Madison Square Garden. It was the first time that two undefeated heavyweights had contested for the world title. He lost his belt by second round stoppage to George Foreman on January 22, 1973 in front of 33,000 in the National Stadium, Kingston, Jamaica—my father was part of the police security detail assigned to both fighters. Getting dropped three times in each round; Frazier refused to stay down and showed his mettle finishing on his feet as Referee Arthur Mercante Sr. called a halt to the action at 2:26. Foreman won the fight but it was Smokin’ Joe who captured the imagination, heart and mind of an entire country. Jamaica built on slave rebellions, resistance and perseverance—with the defiant Paul Bogle as the most revered National Hero—embraced Frazier and his courage to rise every single time he was deposited on the canvas. This noble warrior in defeat reminded us of our struggles and what it meant to press on. Thus, I grew up hearing, “Joe Frazier sharper than a razor.”
He has always had a special place in my heart because Smokin’ Joe Frazier and Joe Frazier the man was one and the same person. Unpretentious, unassuming he had a certain kindred spirit that made you feel that if a fight were to “jump off” he would have your back. If your house were to burn to the ground he would be the first to offer assistance. Comedic great, the late Richard Pryor once joked, “I went to Africa and saw a brother who looked just like Joe Frazier.” The same would have been said had Pryor been talking about trips to Europe, Asia or Australia—we all saw a part of us in The Smoke. He was the mirror that reflected all that was good about humanity especially the will to succeed against all odds. We lost a special member of our family member—Uncle Joe.
Di Smoke gaan but di fiyah bun! Wi mis yu Uncle Joe!
Continue to support the sweet science, and remember, always carry your mouthpiece!