Joseph William Frazier was born January 12, 1944 in Beaufort, South Carolina, a pretty town deep in the Jim Crow South. There were separate schools, restrooms, water fountains, entrances and expectations for black people and white people.
Joe was the 12th child of fiery Dolly Frazier and her philandering one-armed bootlegger husband, Rubin. The handsome, cheerful Fraziers taught their children to play cards and checkers and to love parties, fish fries and sitting around the table swapping jokes and stories for hours at a time. They owned 10 acres, two mules, some chickens and pigs, and a serious work ethic.
They had no electricity until after Joe, the youngest, reached school age. Light came from kerosene lamps. Water came from a pump in the yard. The long walk to the outhouse on starless nights made the young Joe afraid of the dark. Sixty years later he still was, and he gave me a sideways glare that said anybody who wasn’t scared of the dark was dangerously ill informed.
Dolly Frazier worked dawn to dusk as a field hand on a local plantation. After Rubin lost his left arm at the elbow in a shooting incident, he spent a lot of time at home, where he had his own enterprises.
From the time Joe was a toddler, Rubin took him over the fields to the mossy woods where the still was hidden. Rubin had learned to make moonshine from his father, and he passed the skill on to his son. In his later years Joe could still recite the ratios of corn, water and sugar in the mash that stewed in sunken 50-gallon barrels until Rubin shifted it, a gallon at a time, to a tight kettle on the fire.
Joe learned to drive sitting on his father’s lap as they delivered moonshine to customers. At 12 he made the deliveries alone. Frazier told me Rubin “was my hero. My heartbeat. He taught me a lot of things, some good, some bad. But nothing vicious.”
When electricity came to the Frazier house Rubin brought home a television, and the men of the clan gathered to watch boxing matches. Joe was a sturdy eight-year-old on the night one of his uncles looked at him and said he might be the next Joe Louis.
That same year a hog got loose and chased him until he fell, breaking his left elbow. It healed, but it was never entirely straight after that. What would become his most dangerous weapon, his left hook, grew out of a partially fused elbow that was thicker than his right and slightly flexed.
He quit school in sixth grade and went to work. At 14 he was man-size and drove his own rattletrap car. Like his father, Joe loved the ladies, and he liked older girls. He fell hard for two 16-year-olds, Rosetta and Florence. He lied to both girls about his age, among other things. By the time he reached 15 he’d made them both pregnant.
Then one day he had an argument in the street with a white man. The words turned into a fistfight and attracted an audience. Joe was the last man standing, which terrified his parents. They had to get him out of town.
Dolly and Rubin hustled the boy onto a Greyhound bus and sent him to his brother Tommy in New York City. It was 1959, and he was 15 years old. It was the end of Joe Frazier’s childhood.
In Harlem, Joe had problems finding work. He was 17 when he headed for Philadelphia. His older sister Martha, there with her husband and children, was happy when he moved in because he was a good babysitter. “The kids loved him,” she says. He got a rough job hosing blood and shoveling guts at a slaughterhouse.
Frazier was disappointed in himself. He’d plumped up to 220 pounds and he hated being fat. “I began to feel those stirrings again to be more than just an ordinary guy,” he said later. “I hated being ordinary, hated having a job that was just a job. Two years out on my own and what did I have to show for it? A big butt and no life to speak of. It was time to get serious.”
He found a local Police Athletic League boxing gym. In January 1962 Frazier turned 18 and plunged into his dream of boxing. Being a handy street scrapper didn’t count when he first sparred with skilled opponents. He got hurt and humiliated, but he kept trying. He was, he said, “just a short-armed, overweight boxing wannabe.” But he meant to become a champion.
At the gym, Joe met Yancey “Yank” Durham, a lively black man who was a boxer turned railroad welder. Yank trained and managed fighters. He and Frazier took a liking to each other and agreed to work together.
A boxer’s style is as unique as a singer’s voice. It is dictated by his physique, his training and his character. Frazier was a born heavyweight, dense of bone and muscle, but he was small for the big-man’s division. He’s often listed as five-11 and a half or even six-one, but standing beside him I’d agree with the scholars who say he was around five-10. In fighting trim he weighed around 205 pounds, and he had short arms. Many of his opponents would top six feet, outweigh him by 20 pounds and have six inches of reach on him. Unless he did something to shift the equation, they could stay outside and pick him to shreds with their longer arms. Like the similarly built Rocky Marciano, Frazier had to make his offense his defense. He had to slip in close and throw a barrage of punches. His power was important, but it had to be intelligently schooled.
Yank said he wanted to see smoke coming off Frazier’s gloves in the ring. When he threw a lot of hard punches, Yank yelled, “Now you’re smokin’.” So Frazier became Smokin’ Joe and Smoke to his friends.
Frazier had been making quick visits to South Carolina. Between his 16th and 19th birthdays he had four children, two each with Florence and Rosetta. He sent what he could to both families, but money was tight.
Florence came north with their two children and moved in with Frazier. She went to work at a Sears store. In September 1963, the 19-year-old Joe and 21-year-old Florence were married at Philadelphia’s City Hall.
The slaughterhouse often kept him until after the gym closed, but he had a key so he could go in and work out alone. Boxers train in three-minute intervals with a brief rest between, like the rounds of a fight. Frazier brought in a cheap record player and a stack of 45s. Each side ran about three minutes, so he’d work out with James Brown, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, the Drifters and Aretha Franklin to keep him company and mark the time.
Frazier went to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics as the heavyweight for the U.S. team. He was thrilled to be there, and he was determined. He knocked out two men to get to the semifinals. There he met a six-foot-four, 230-pound Russian and stopped him in the second round. In the process, Frazier broke his left thumb.
The gold medal bout was the following day. Afraid of being scratched, Frazier iced the hand and told no one about the injury. The next day he fought a taller, heavier German and won. He was the only American boxer to take home a gold medal from the 1964 Olympics.
Back in Philadelphia doctors found Frazier’s thumb dislocated with multiple fractures. It required two surgeries months apart. The slaughterhouse fired him. Florence’s job at Sears did not cover the family bills. Christmas that year was looking grim. Then a newspaper story about the hurt gold medalist triggered a charitable flood of cash and gifts for the children. Joe never forgot that kindness.
Frazier had also injured his left eye while preparing for the Olympics. He was hitting a speed bag when the steel swivel broke and a piece of shrapnel flew into his eye. The lens was damaged, the vision clouded. No boxing commission in the country would have allowed Frazier to fight as a pro if word got out. He kept it secret.
All these years later he laughed like a naughty kid, explaining how he got through dozens of commission eye exams by memorizing the eye chart and switching hands instead of eyes when the doctor said “And now cover the other one.”
By spring his hand had healed, and Frazier was ready to turn pro. Potential backers thought he was too small to be a serious heavyweight. Frazier and Yank went ahead on their own.
On August 16, 1965, Frazier won his professional debut by first-round knockout. Instead of pay, the Philadelphia promoter gave him a handful of tickets and said, “Whatever you sell you can keep.” Frazier ended up with $125. He blasted through three more wins that year.
Meanwhile, a Baptist minister introduced Frazier to an influential Philly businessman who created a syndicate of 40 investors, black and white, to support his career. Each investor bought shares in a new corporation dubbed Cloverlay. They gave Frazier $100 a week and a $60-a-week job with a maintenance company.