The public image of Frazier as a serious, Bible-reading family man was true enough, but he was complicated. He was meticulous about obligations. Before each fight he went into strict training for six to eight weeks. No pie, alcohol or sex. By the time he set foot in the ring he was a cranky man. But in the free time between fights, he phoned his friend Butch Lewis to meet him.
“That guy is free-spirited,” said Lewis. “We would go out to nightclubs and party all night. The biggest party in the room. Smoke is always a ladies’ man. He couldn’t go anywhere without ladies all over him. I’m like, ‘Let’s call it a night.’ His wife would be thinking that’s Butch Lewis keeping him out. But I’m trying to get his ass home. She don’t know. He’s blaming it on me, and I take that bullet.”
The government coup that dethroned Ali in 1967 threw the boxing world into a frenzy. Within weeks the World Boxing Association launched a heavyweight elimination tournament, with seven contenders vying for the vacant title. Frazier could have been the eighth man in that tournament, but Yank Durham had a different idea.
Frazier stopped the 243-pound Buster Mathis on March 4, 1968 in Madison Square Garden to win the New York title, which had clout despite its state limitations.
Two years later, on February 16, 1970, Frazier met the winner of the WBA title tournament, quick and tall Jimmy Ellis. The fight was also sanctioned for the vacant World Boxing Council title.
Ellis didn’t stand a chance. The unified world title was Frazier’s. George Foreman fought on the undercard that night. Years later Foreman said, “I was afraid of Frazier. I thought as long as Joe Frazier was around there would be no chance for me. I hoped he’d die.”
But Ali was still out there, and for many people he was the only legitimate champion.
On the night Frazier flattened Buster Mathis, another important thing happened. At a party after the fight, the 24-year-old Frazier met Denise Menz, the spunky 19-year-old from New Jersey who would be his lover, friend, office manager, interior decorator, supply clerk, nurse, historian, jokester and companion off and on for the rest of his life.
The laughing, redheaded Menz welcomed me into the apartment she’d been sharing with Frazier since his last spinal surgery, in 2008. She said, “I have a Ph.D. in Frazierology.” In addition to running the popular Menz Restaurant near Cape May, New Jersey with her family, Denise is an interior designer. The big front room was full of comfort and grace all the way to the glass wall looking onto the terrace.
She had designed and furnished the luxurious 5,000-square-foot penthouse in the building that housed Joe Frazier’s Gym, on Philadelphia’s North Broad Street. That’s where Frazier lived for decades.
She and Frazier moved to this apartment when the last surgery on his spine meant he could no longer manage the three flights of stairs to the penthouse. He shut down the gym at the same time, ending its 40-year history as one of the best places on the planet to learn to box.
Joe Frazier made millions back when a million meant something. At the end he was not rich, but he was far from destitute. He had a pension from a trust fund socked away while he was boxing, and he augmented that income with personal appearances and merchandising.
Over the decades, when Denise got mad at Frazier, it was usually over women. The first time, she said, she was devastated. “I was so naive. I knew I was the other woman, but I didn’t know there were others.”
She told a painfully funny story of being in a hotel with Joe only to find out he had three other women in the same hotel. At one point his infidelity prompted her to storm off and join her sister and brother in starting their family business. Its success kept her busy, but Joe would always finagle a way to lure her back.
Joe’s wife, Florence, knew about the two children he had with Rosetta, but he kept her from knowing about the other women and the other children born outside their marriage. His daughter Weatta remembers how the news broke. One day Florence answered the phone at home and it was a woman wanting to talk to Joe because their little boy was sick. Florence divorced Joe in 1985.
Denise called it quits a few times, but there she was. Though she still tended to her business, she found and furnished the apartment, then stayed by Frazier’s side throughout his time in the hospital and during his recovery. Denise never had children, but she talks about Joe’s as if they were her own.
“I couldn’t find any to replace her,” said Frazier.
Cloverlay bought a warehouse on North Broad Street and carved Joe Frazier’s gym in stone on the front. The gym was the center of Frazier’s life for the next 40 years. Frazier and Yank arranged the workout area and showers. On the second floor, they built bedrooms and a kitchen for boxers. Sparring partners and other fighters flocked in. Frazier hired coach Val Colbert to teach anybody who wandered through the door. There were no gym fees. Frazier paid all expenses, from heat and lights to medical and pension plans for Colbert and other employees. Yank Durham recruited trainer Eddie Futch to work with Frazier full time.
In camp Frazier battered his sparring partners and then atoned by deliberately losing money to them at cards or dice. He could crack the ribs of even the great Larry Holmes, because, says Holmes, “I was young and he was Joe Frazier.” His doctor was worried about Frazier’s high blood pressure, but Joe hushed it up and kept on. Harold Weston, longtime matchmaker for Madison Square Garden, met Frazier in a training camp. Weston was amazed by Frazier’s work ethic. “Talk about dedicated. I said, ‘Oh my God. Well, if that’s what it takes to be him, then that’s what I’ve got to do.’ Then I heard Joe Frazier say, ‘I’m willing to die in this ring to win.’ ”
Frazier invested money and bought a handsome seven-bedroom home on a few acres in a posh Philly suburb. His kids were delivered to good schools every morning by limousine.
It’s dark and late and Frazier is in the Escalade’s shotgun seat while his manager, Les Wolff, drives. Behind them are Denise’s niece Leslie, her friend Diane and Diane’s husband, Jim. Joe and Les debate which bar to go to. Joe says, “I want to be with black people.” Les shrugs and says, “Okay.” None of the five white people in the car are offended. We’re on Hook Road, and Joe guides us to Dixon’s, a little blue-collar juke joint with a gravel parking lot carved out of the dark. “When I want to get lost,” Joe says, “this is where I come.”
The music is loud and the lights are dim. The instant Frazier opens the door a shout goes up: “It’s Smokin’ Joe.” He leads us down the bar, grasping hands that reach for him. We slip into a big booth and the bartender asks Joe who his friends are. “This is my family,” he says, waving an arm to include us all. The bartender smiles at us and says, “Really? You’re his family?” All our moon-pale faces nod and say, “Yes, indeed.”
Joe sends a handful of coins to the jukebox with instructions about which buttons to push. When his music comes up it’s old and hot and hard. Joe leaves his cane in the booth and invites Leslie to dance. Soon the bartender joins in, then others.
And there’s Joe Frazier, bent but grooving, surrounded by women, dancing the night away.
Frazier was set to fight Ali on March 8, 1971. Two days before, Philadelphia police escorted Frazier to New York City. In his gold Cadillac the usually friendly fighter was so silent and grim that the cops joked about taking an order for his last meal.
In Manhattan a contingent of New York cops met the Cadillac and guarded his hotel room. When fight time came the police smuggled Frazier into Madison Square Garden through an underground tunnel to avoid the mobs outside. Inside, the Garden was crammed with high rollers, glittering with excitement.
The bout can be seen in many formats, from DVDs to the internet, and the images sear through time. It was ferocious and close. Frazier’s left hook, which Ali privately called “that evil thing,” put Ali on the deck in the 15th round. He survived to the final bell, but the spell was broken. Frazier deserved the decision and he got it.
As soon as he got back from having his swollen jaw x-rayed, Ali announced that Frazier hadn’t really beaten him, later adding that it was a “white man’s” decision. But everyone who saw it knew the truth.
Over the decades since, Frazier has been quoted forgiving Ali for the nastiness almost as often as he’s said bitter things about him. In Frazier’s many public appearances, he told me, “they always want me to talk about him, though I don’t want to.” Naturally I asked him too: Are you still mad at him? He said, “Sitting here relaxing? No, not at all. But if I get to thinking about it? Yes.” Maybe the best part of forgiving is forgetting. But we never let Frazier do that. We kept bringing it up.