Acclaimed sportswriter Phil Pepe explores the iconic boxer “Smokin’ Joe” Frazier’s early beginnings. From his dirt poor childhood and relationship with his father to his street fights and Olympic boxing championship, Pepe’s book follows Frazier’s rise, culminating in the “Fight of the Century” with Muhammad Ali. Pepe beat all other writers to the punch in his seminal work on the champ nobody knew. Originally published in 1972, now available in ebook format for the first time.
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It's cold in New York on this Tuesday afternoon in December. It's bitter cold. Icy blasts of wind whip through the asphalt caverns that nestle between mountains of steel and stone. It's lunch hour and office workers hurry through the streets, coat collars turned up against the wind. In twenty-four hours, they will be getting ready for the New Year's Eve parties.
It's shortly after noon on Tuesday, December 30, 1970, and on Fifty-second Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, in front of the restaurant known as Toots Shor, people are gathering outside in the cold.
Inside, the crowd has already assembled, television cameras ready, still cameras poised, reporters, boxing personalities and celebrity-watchers waiting, many of them since 11 a.m., in anticipation of the press conference that has been called for 1 p.m.
The reason for the conference is no secret. It has already been in the newspapers. Only one thing could draw such a crowd. It is to announce the signing of the long-awaited boxing match, unbeaten former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali vs. unbeaten present heavyweight champion Joe Frazier. "The Fight." It is to announce the date, the terms and the other particulars of what will be the biggest, the richest, most dramatic sporting event in history.
Now it's three minutes before one and a long, sleek, black Cadillac limousine pulls up at the curb. There are more than one hundred people milling around outside Toots Shor's, most of them young, most of them black. Several policemen are on duty there to keep order, to keep a path open on the sidewalk so that passersby can move freely. It's an orderly crowd, but now there is no way to control it. The doors of the Cadillac swing open and out they tumble, the familiar impassive black faces of the well-dressed young men who are always with Muhammad Ali, always with him, looking around, but never talking. Angelo Dundee, the little trainer, emerges from the Cadillac, the only white man among a dozen blacks. And then, the one they have come to see, the familiar coffee-colored skin, the smooth, handsome face with high cheekbones and flashing eyes. The one they used to know as Cassius Clay.
"There he is, there's the champ," someone shouts. They clutch at his clothes, but the well-dressed young men with the impassive black faces thrust their bodies between him and his idolaters and wedge their way through the crowd, many pushing pieces of paper at him to sign.
"Ah-lee, Ah-lee, Ah-lee," they shout.
"I'm the real champ," he says. "I will show them who is the real champ. I will show them."
"Ah-lee, Ah-lee, Ah-lee." And "Right on, brother."
Somebody holds the door of the restaurant open for him and he ducks inside, escaping the cold, diving into a mass of reporters, his face bathed by the lights from the cameras.
Five minutes later, another black limousine pulls up and another young black man steps out into the winter's chill, pushes his way through the same throng, is escorted through the same door, toward the same waiting reporters, blinking in the same harsh lights. But it is not the same for Joe Frazier, heavyweight champion of the world. Not at all.
There is mild applause and one voice is heard. "Kill the bum," says the voice. It comes from an older man, a white older man.
Now they are sitting three seats apart on a long dais set up in the huge dining room, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, two heavyweight champions of the world representing two eras, two styles in the ring, two lifestyles. Both of them are black, but that's where the similarity ends. Muhammad Ali is the antihero, a rebel, defiant, antiestablishment, loud and brash, a hero to the young people, white and black, young people who are in turmoil with a war they don't want, young people who cannot understand the adults for their inability to understand the young people; young people who are starved for leaders who are concerned for them, who are aware of them, who are trying to do something for them. Once there was John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King and they are gone and there are not many left to whom they can relate. There is Ralph Nader and Julian Bond and Ramsey Clark and, for some, there is Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown and Eldridge Cleaver and Abbie Hoffman. And Muhammad Ali. And they turn out in droves when he appears on campus to make a speech.
Joe Frazier is the establishment's champion, the poor boy who made a million dollars with his fists, who became heavyweight champion of the world and proved a black boy from South Carolina can make a million dollars ... if he can fight. He is quiet, a father of five. He does not speak out against his country. He does not preach hate or separatism. He goes to the Baptist church; he used to sing in church.
Joe Frazier. That's a boy we can point to with pride. Joe Frazier. The white man's champion, many say. And, soon, the "white hope" of boxing.
They are sitting there, three seats apart, and in the middle of the dais, on his feet and talking is a man named Jerry Perenchio. The announcement has been made, the details spelled out. "The Fight" would be held in Madison Square Garden on Monday night, March 8, 1971. Contracts have been signed less than an hour before, in a room in Madison Square Garden. Both fighters to get a flat guarantee, $2,500,000 each, no percentage of the gate, just $5,000,000 payable within twenty-four hours after they fight, the largest individual payoff for a single performance in sports or entertainment.
Now Jerry Perenchio is on his feet, explaining how he got involved in this promotion and how he put the deal together in just two weeks. He is the moneyman and looks it. The suit is expensively tailored and the handsome face and brown wavy hair belie his forty years. He has the well-groomed look of a man who has never had to work very hard, a man who has spent a good deal of time in a gym and in the hands of a hair stylist.
He is telling the press that just two weeks before he was in London on business and a friend called to ask if he was interested in "The Fight." Jerry Perenchio thinks big; he operates big. Of course, he was interested. All it would take, said his friend, would be $5,000,000. From that moment, there were round-the-clock negotiations. Millionaire sportsman Jack Kent Cooke put up the money and now Jerry Perenchio has "The Fight" and he is telling the press why he, a show business promoter who had never before undertaken a sports promotion, wanted it — because, he says, it's big, because it's even bigger than sports, because it is an event that goes beyond sports.
"We have not one, but two superstars here," Perenchio explains. "Interest transcends the boxing world. We expect to have the college and university market, the family market. This is a G-rated picture. We expect the fight to gross between twenty million and thirty million dollars."
At the mention of those figures Muhammad Ali's eyes grow larger, and with perfect timing he springs to his feet.
"Thirty million dollars ...," he shrieks. "Frazier, we've been taken."
New York Boxing Commissioner Ed Dooley referees at the signing
The anticipated laugh comes, long and loud, and Perenchio concludes his talk. Then they call on Muhammad Ali and he gets to his feet before a captive audience, and he talks. If this fight is big, if it is the biggest fight ever, Ali tells one and all, it is big for only one reason.
"It's big because of me," he insists. "It's not big because of Joe Frazier. Joe Frazier never wrote no poems, Joe Frazier never did no shuffles, Joe Frazier never did no predicting, Joe Frazier don't even answer no questions. He don't look like a champion. He's flat-footed, he's got no rhythm, he keeps coming in and he gets tired. I don't get tired. He ain't even pretty."
"Somebody call a doctor," Joe Frazier says from his seat. "I don't want him to have a heart attack. I don't want nothin' to happen to him. I need him."
Without missing a beat, Muhammad goes on as if he were alone in the room, rehearsing a monologue. "A lot of people want to see me get whipped," he says. "Because of the draft, because of my religion, because I'm black. If I lose, though, there will be a lot of people actually crying. It's the biggest fight because he looks unbeatable and I am unbeatable. The whole world will be looking in on this fight because of me. Even in Egypt and Israel they might stop fighting. ...
"I guarantee you it will go over nine rounds. I was off my guard with Oscar Bonavena. You'll all be shocked with how easy I handle Joe Frazier. Like a baby. He got a break when I got set down, and now I'm back to take what belongs to me. I am the real champ, Joe Frazier is a pretender. He's a pretender to my throne. If he whups me, I'll crawl across the ring on my hands and knees and tell him, 'Joe Frazier, you are the greatest,' and then I'll catch the first jet and leave the country. ..."
It goes on like this for more than half an hour, Joe Frazier sitting there, eating his lunch, laughing sometimes, frowning occasionally, and Muhammad Ali talking. Talk. Talk, talk. Talk, talk, talk.CHAPTER 2
The road to the $30,000,000 fight was a long and circuitous one, from amateur boxing in Louisville, Kentucky, through two separate Olympic Games, a championship won in the ring and lost in the courts, a reversal of the court decision and the suspended fighter's return to the ring.
It began for Joe Frazier in the town of Beaufort, South Carolina, near the U.S. Marine base on Parris Island, a sleepy little town, clean but simple. It is a place of saltwater swampland, set in a fascinating country of old rice fields, water meadows, and oyster creeks, with Spanish moss draping from serrated awnings above asphalt streets. In the backcountry, through thick pine forests, wind dusty roads and wooden shacks stand on cinder blocks.
It was in one of these shacks among the oak trees and the Spanish moss and the sandy sea island soil that Joe Frazier was born in 1944, the youngest of thirteen children of Rubin and Dolly Frazier. The Fraziers lived in a five-room frame house on a fifty-acre farm at Laurel Bay on the Broad River, a farm that was their home and their life.
Rubin Frazier was a farmer and his family lived off the land. He didn't rent and he didn't sharecrop. Like most black families at that time, in that part of the country, the Fraziers owned their own place and Rubin Frazier worked it with his children. He grew peas, potatoes, corn, cabbage, okra, and tomatoes and his children worked right alongside him practically from the time they could walk.
It is January, 1944. There's a war on, but there is a renewed hope in the land and a promise for the future. Not in Beaufort, South Carolina, though. In Beaufort, the new year dawns without hope and promise. Life is a struggle in which worms and scurvy and acute starvation claim 20 percent of the children, as they claimed four children of Rubin and Dolly Frazier.
Now, Dolly Frazier is in her thirteenth pregnancy and Rubin Frazier's hope is this child. "There is something special coming on the mail train," Rubin Frazier would say.
It is the twelfth day of the new year in Beaufort and a baby is born to Rubin and Dolly Frazier, a fine, strong son. There was nothing special about Joe Frazier, the one his brothers and sisters would call "Billy Boy." No favorable conjunction of the stars in their heaven on that January 12, 1944, indicated that on that day a champion was born. Only Rubin Frazier seemed to know somehow. He seemed to sense that there was something special about his youngest son. This was the boy he would build his dreams on, the dreams that somehow, someway, the son's life would be better than the father's.
"This," said Rubin Frazier, as fathers often do, "will be my famous son."
There was a bond between Rubin and Billy Joe Frazier, a closeness that so often develops when that son comes along late in a father's life. The year before Billy Joe was born, Rubin lost his left arm in a shotgun accident and when he grew old enough, Joe became his daddy's "left-hand man." They would work together, side by side, and everyone knew that this was Rubin Frazier and his special son.
"He would hold a bolt with his right hand," Joe remembers, "and I would screw the bolt."
When he was little, Joe played baseball with his brothers and friends and he loved to shoot marbles. "But I wouldn't let him go swimming," says Dolly Frazier. "Too dangerous. I didn't want him playing around the river. Once I took him swimming in the ocean, but I kept an eye on him."
When he was six, Billy Boy worked in the field, pulling radishes, cutting broccoli, and picking tomatoes, getting paid $1 for a twelve-hour day. By the time he was seven he was driving his father's pickup truck, revealing a love for motors then that's still his great passion.
"I didn't give him no special treatment just because he was the baby," says Dolly Frazier. She is a slight, small, fragile woman with white hair and a body bent from age and childbearing and years of hard work. She has no formal education, but she has the native intelligence and innate wisdom that comes only from living. "All of them was my children," Dolly Frazier says, "and I treat them alike. His father paid him extra attention, but I never did."
"He was always the pride and joy of my father," says Joe's sister, Julia. "He never wanted anybody to bother Joe or anything and during the time he was growing up, he always used to say to us that Joe was going to be the second Joe Louis."
Fighting came later. He was nine, his mother remembers. "No gloves, he fought with his naked hands," she says. "All the neighborhood boys. He licked them good. He was a good child, I just couldn't say he was bad. He never run around and do much badness — but children is children regardless. When they go to play and do something, you can't get them off what they're doing if they got their mind on it. So now I thank God that he's the world champion fighter."
With his hands, Billy Joe built his own gym. He took over an old wagon shed and filled a flower sack with sand and Spanish moss, tied a rope to it and lashed the rope to a beam. That was Joe's punching bag. Hour after hour, he would slam it with his bare fists, toughening his hands and developing the thickness of his arms and chest from hours of pounding that homemade bag.
"When we called Joe to do the chores around the house," recalls his sister Rebecca, "he would say, 'Oh, leave me alone. You know I'm going to box. You laugh at me if you want, but I'm going to be the next Joe Louis.' " His father had said it; it had to be true. "I guess I wanted to believe it," Joe says now. "He didn't have no doubts, and neither did I."
Discipline in the Frazier house was meted out by the mother, but it was not discipline without love ... love of family and love of God. Each night before going to bed, Joe would read a page of the Bible, a practice he still hasn't abandoned. His favorite is the Book of Judges.
"Because it's about war," Joe says, "and fighting puts me in mind of war. When I go into the ring, I'm going to war. That's what a fight is. War. Everything I read, I try to relate to my work.
"I read the Bible all the time before a fight. I also like the Twenty-third Psalm and the Book of Job because they tell about a man in need ... a man with trouble. Fighting is trouble for me if I miss and get hit. I got to be ready for it."
With the discipline of his mother came a sense of responsibility.
"I raised nine children," says Dolly Frazier, "and all of them is larger than me and I thank God for that. And they didn't come through easy ground. They never just sit around with nothin' to do. I always have enough work for them to do.
"Joe loved stewed crab. That's what built him up so big. That and the good food and good attention. All my children got good care. I raised them right. I stayed home with my children and didn't go away and leave them.
"No," Dolly Frazier repeated, "I didn't give him no special treatment more than any of my children because he was the baby, not like his father did, 'cause I knew he was going to be leaving here sometime, goin' around, gettin' tough, and I didn't pet him. I kept them clean and I stayed at home with them ... and I don't care how large he is, when he come home he must know that this is his mother. Yes."
Rubin Frazier died in 1965, some years after Billy Joe had grown to be a fine, strong boy, but before he had become Rubin's "famous son." When he died, Rubin Frazier took his dream with him to his grave. He never saw Joe become the heavyweight champion of the world. He never saw Billy Joe become "the second Joe Louis."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Come Out Smokin'"
Copyright © 2012 Phil Pepe.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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