[Editor's Note: The boxing world mourns a legend today upon hearing of the passing of 'Smokin' Joe Frazier. The former Olympic and Undisputed Heavyweight Champion became a household name in the late 60's, quickly rising through boxing's ranks to claim the sports greatest prize. He will perhaps be best remembered for his storied title defense at Madison Square Garden in what was dubbed the Fight of the Century where he beat Muhammad Ali on points in the first of their three meetings.
Appearing in the March 1973 issue of Playboy, 'Smokin' Joe offered insight into the mind of a champ, reflecting extensively on his relationship and fight with Ali, the state of religion and government in America and the growing impact of his legacy. The following is the interview in full]
"He is going to make a lot of money, he is going to be the champion for a long time and he is a mean guy to tangle with." Those were some of the conclusions reached by boxer-astrologer Henry Hank when he studied Joe Frazier's horoscope in the June 1970 issue of The Ring. It seems to be the age of Capricorn among heavyweight boxers, for the goat is not only the world champion's sign but also that of exchamp Muhammad Ali, a.k.a. Cassius Clay, who lost a 15-round title fight to Frazier nine months after Hank's prediction—but remains the most formidable contender for Joe's title. Hank noted that the horoscopes of Frazier and Ali contain "many startling similarities." Since he won the championship, however, Frazier has been a relatively invisible celebrity, while Ali has been flamboyantly conspicuous, as always, fighting frequently and taking every occasion to complain about Frazier's inactivity, to protest that he's really the uncrowned champ and to demand purses equal to the sizable ones commanded by his archrival.
Joe Frazier may be in the money now, but he started out dirt poor. The youngest of seven sons in a family of 12, he worked in the fields alongside his brothers, picking the vegetables grown by the wealthy white landowners of Beaufort, South Carolina. Joe's father, to whom he was very close, had lost an arm in a car accident shortly before Joe was born; he died of cancer in 1965. Joe's mother, Dolly, is still going strong. Tube watchers may recall the cigar commercial in which she tells her famous son not to get ashes on the rug; that would be one of the rugs in the 200-year-old plantation that Joe, a family man all the way, recently bought for her.
A high school dropout—he got as far as the tenth grade—Frazier married when he was 15 and migrated north. After a brief stay in New York, he moved to Philadelphia, where he found work in a slaughterhouse. It was in order to lose weight that Joe worked out at a Police Athletic League gym, where he was soon spotted by Yancey Durham, a veteran fight trainer who noticed that the solidly built youngster could throw a hell of a punch—and take one, too. So Frazier entered the ring wars. His amateur career reached its climax when he won the gold medal in heavyweight competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Joe had some luck along the way; he was outpointed by Buster Mathis in the Olympic trials, but Mathis broke his thumb, allowing Frazier to go to Japan. He returned to Philadelphia—and a bleak Christmas, after which he turned pro. Without a manager—he and Durham were setting up the bouts themselves—Joe started winning handily against so-so opposition. Then a group of Philadelphia businessmen formed a corporation, called Cloverlay, to guide his career.
Displaying courage, a strong jaw, good punching and a nonstop attack that gave his adversaries little time to think or room to maneuver, "smokin'" is his term for this style—Frazier made rapid progress. When Ali was stripped of his crown, the World Boxing Association collaborated with a TV network in sponsoring a series of elimination bouts to produce a new champion. Frazier refused to enter the tournament, but eventually he was matched with its winner, Jimmy Ellis. On February 16, 1970, in Madison Square Garden, he knocked out Ellis in the fifth round to achieve widespread recognition as the champ. Quite a few people, however, still considered Muhammad Ali—who had yet to be beaten in the ring—the legitimate titleholder. Ali eventually returned to boxing and, in March 1971, came up against Frazier in an unprecedented meeting of two undefeated heavyweight champions. (Also unprecedented were the guarantees of $2,500,000 that were made to each fighter, and the astronomical gross of the match, which was broadcast world-wide on TV.) A description of the fight that Frazier probably likes appeared in The Ring: "Frazier was as determined a man...that night as any champion has ever been against an important foe. He was relentless. He was desperate. He was magnificent."
Not everyone, however, was ready to give Frazier credit for his victory.
Rolling Stone, for instance, ran a review of the fight titled "Still and All, Muhammad Won." Then there was Frazier's stay in a hospital after the fight, for mysterious reasons; his 10-month absence from the ring; and his subsequent victories over low-rated Terry Daniels and Ron Stander. Ali's partisans criticized Frazier not only for failing to defend the crown more often but on political grounds; if Ali represented black militancy and the antiwar movement, they reasoned, then Frazier had to be cast as a symbol of reaction. Boxing Illustrated recently published a story by Bryant C. Gumbel, the editor of Black Sports, that was titled: "Is Joe Frazier a White Champion in a Black Skin?"
To find out the answer to that question and many more, Playboy sent Associate Editor Carl Snyder—a longtime fight fan who admits that he won five dollars when Frazier beat Ali (but, he says, "I never heard the end of it")—to interview the champ in Philadelphia. Following is his account of what happened:
"I arrived at Joe's headquarters, in an old three-story building across from the North Philadelphia train station, around 7:30 a.m. Inside was a small but cavernous gym, with a ring to one side. Some stairs in the back led to Joe's office, his 'playroom' (containing record players, tape machines and the like) and dressing room. All were sumptuously furnished, with—among other things—rich carpeting, peacock feathers in a vase, photos of the musical revue Joe produced and sometimes performs with (as lead singer of a band called the Pazant Brothers with the Beaufort Express), and such memorabilia as the key to the city of Akron, trophies, plaques and a Sports Illustrated cover showing Joe's 15th-round knockdown of Ali, with the caption, 'End of the Ali Legend.'
"Frazier arrived about 11:30 a.m., entering the gym on the run and hollering (that's customary; sometimes he comes in singing). He was wearing a brown leather coat, three-colored shoes, motorcycle helmet and goggles. After a few moments of shadowboxing and some hasty words with associates, Joe went outside to do a TV spot with a local camera crew. They filmed him going around the block on his Harley—it was the coldest day of the year in Philadelphia—then did a short interview. When he came back in, he went into the playroom and, with the help of his secretary and a battery of plug-in phones, took care of business: a call to Cloverlay and some expense accounting for a trip he'd taken to do a 'Dick Cavett Show' appearance and a Mennen commercial. In two days, Frazier would be flying to Detroit to pick up a new Cadillac that had been prepared according to his specifications and, three days after that, he'd be making a junket to Jamaica to take the physical and get the license that would enable him to box George Foreman there on January 22. (The match was signed just after our interview was completed, and would be fought after this issue went to press.)
"After the phone calls, he tried on—and rejected—some new headgear. Joe designed his own ring shoes, which are two inches higher than the usual variety, and give him more support; he also designed his ring outfits, including a green robe bearing the names of his five children on the back. Finally, Joe got ready for the day's training. He taped his own hands, biting off the adhesive, then trotted out to the gym. Joe hadn't begun sparring yet, so the session started with some shadowboxing in front of a mirror, accompanied by guttural exhalations. Then the heavy bag, with Joe doubling up on his hooks, tossing a few five-punch combinations and ducking as if the bag were an active opponent.
"The light bag followed; and whenever Joe slammed it hard, the floor shook. These exercises were in three-minute segments, simulating rounds, with Lee, who runs the gym, holding the watch: 'You got one...got a half...15...10...five...time!' And Joe would end each 'round' with a flurry of punches that, it seemed to a nonathlete, no human could survive. Finished with the bags, Joe lay on a table and did 20 sit-ups. Then Lee took a 15-pound medicine ball and slammed it repeatedly into Joe's stomach and sides. The session concluded with rope skipping—Joe on his toes, hands down by his hips, wrist-flicking the rope over his head.
"Our conversations began after the training session, as Joe sat naked in his dressing room. Soon he dressed and—giving an interview to a local sportswriter on the way—drove his Mark IV to a travel agency (arrangements for the Jamaica trip), then to the office of his lawyer, Bruce Wright, where I listened for an hour as they discussed a business venture they were considering: purchase of 139 acres of land in Bucks County, Pennsylvania on which to build a 'planned residential development' that would provide Joe with a tax shelter.
"We arranged for Joe to come over and talk the next morning at my motel, where there'd be fewer distractions. He arrived a bit late, signaling his presence by pounding on the door and yelling, 'Open up or somethin' gon' happen!' Later in the day, after Joe had split, I went back to the gym, where—after matching him sew a button onto his purple overcoat—I witnessed a training session similar to the one on the previous day, except that this time an American girl working for some German newspaper was taking pictures. The table routine afterward left Joe with a splinter in his rear end, and back in the dressing room, Lee refused to pull it out; Tyrone, his nephew, didn't want to either, but Joe finally browbeat him into doing it—which he did with trepidation. When they were out of earshot, Joe mumbled something about 'them faggots.'
"The afternoon was spent in the playroom, with Joe listening to tapes—Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, a mostly unknown young songwriter named Milt Matthews and Joe's own revue, which featured Vivian Reed (now the star of the musical Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope). Joe sang along, danced and pointed out a few mistakes in the show. The next morning, we talked again at the motel and when Joe left—after urging me to catch him again sometime—there was more soul music coming from the large portable radio he carried.
"Working with Frazier was a pleasure, though it's recommended only for the patient reporter. Joe is a very down-to-earth, straightforward and considerate guy, with a good sense of humor, except for certain moments when he seems strangely withdrawn and preoccupied. He's also very much the champ; the people who work for him call him 'the boss,' and not without reason. For other descriptive phrases, we could do worse than go back to Henry Hank's astrological readings, according to which Joe is 'loyal...peevish, restless, careful with his money...tactful, diplomatic and curious...lighthearted...good in investing, good in producing income...susceptible to the opposite sex...has compassion, a musical bent, and a love for science, the movies and magic.' I don't know about science, but the rest of it sounds like Joe."