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Smoke
  • February 20, 2012 : 20:02
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After the fight Frazier was sick, his blood pressure spiking. He didn’t want the world to think Ali had hurt him, so Yank drove him back to Philadelphia, where he checked into a hospital secretly. He stayed for a month, being treated and visiting with family during the day but sneaking out at night to party.

Now he was the indisputable champion of the world, and he had fun. He bought his contract from Cloverlay and bought the gym. He bought a plantation outside Beaufort for his mother. He was invited to address the South Carolina legislature, the first black person ever to do so.

Frazier defended his title twice, and then, in January 1973, he fought George Foreman in Jamaica. “George bounced me like a yo-yo,” Frazier told me. He went down six times before the referee stopped the fight. It was gone. The world championship now belonged to Foreman. Frazier made no excuses. He told me Foreman was just too strong for him.

On August 30, 1973, Frazier’s friend, teacher, partner and protector Yank Durham died of a stroke. Frazier fought on with Eddie Futch in his corner. In January 1974, Frazier and Ali met again in Madison Square Garden. Neither of them owned a title, and compared with their first fight it was a drab affair. Ali got the decision.

Then came October 1975 and the Thrilla in Manila, in which the two men nearly killed each other. With both Frazier’s eyes blinded at the end of the 14th round, Futch wisely stopped the fight, though Frazier wanted to continue and Ali himself was on the verge of collapse. A win for Ali.

Later Frazier tried Foreman once more, with the same result. And that was it. His career as a fighter was over at the age of 32.

But it was not the end of Frazier. The gym was busy and attracting talent. Professionals wanted Frazier to manage and train them. Excellent trainers such as Futch and George Benton worked there with their fighters. The gym’s amateur team was thriving.

In the 1990s Frazier’s brother Tommy was running a limousine service and promoting fight cards, and Joe’s daughter Jacqui Frazier-Lyde opened her law office on the second floor of the gym. A wall-size photo of Ali landing on his butt in the 1971 bout rose above the sparring ring. Michael Spinks, Bernard Hopkins and Meldrick Taylor worked out there. Frazier set the tone, demanding hard work and respect for the sport, the gym and everyone in it. Anybody who didn’t want to do it Smoke’s way could find the door. As many as eight fighters at a time were living on the second floor.

Frazier was divorced and living in the penthouse. Days began with Frazier knocking on the fighters’ doors at five a.m., saying, “Time to go running.” In his 40s and 50s Frazier ran a mile or two with the fighters, then followed them the rest of the way in his Cadillac. He got them a healthy breakfast, then back to the gym for a rest before the hours of gym work began. Smoke kept them out of trouble at night with fight videos, television, cards, Ping-Pong and music.

“Smoke kept his private life private,” says one boxer who trained there. But at 11 p.m., after the fighters were all in bed, they’d hear the Cadillac pulling out and know he was on the town. Still, he’d be there at five a.m. to go running again.

Joe Frazier supported all his children as they grew up and wanted them to have good educations and careers. “If I’m man enough to make them, I’m man enough to pay for them,” he said. All his children are successful, except Hector.

Hector got into trouble in his teens. Frazier took him into the gym and Hector fought under the name Joe Frazier Jr. He had talent, but he was drawn into drugs and crime and is currently serving a long sentence in prison.

In his apartment the aging Frazier talked about his brothers and sisters, how they all had good jobs and good kids. Then he stopped for a moment. “I guess I’m the only one with a kid in the clink.” It hurt him.

Frazier regretted not having an education. The management of his finances by his business partners irked him. Maybe that added to his reluctance to look like a softy or a sap. Butch Lewis, for instance, insisted that during Ali’s exile Frazier occasionally gave Ali money. Frazier denied it flatly.

Once while remembering the switch his mother used on him, Frazier told me he was a strict disciplinarian with his kids. Spanked them good. I asked his daughter Weatta about that, and she laughed. Never happened. Well, she recalled, there was once, when they were all little and Marvis punched Jacqui. Her dad marched Marvis to the basement, saying they were going “to put on the gloves.” He was a loving dad, according to his kids. But his daughter Renae said he could give you “that look, like he could send you back to Jesus.” Then you’d know you’d crossed the line.

Frazier took out his neat black pistol to show me, then slipped it back into its hidden holster. He said he’d been licensed to carry in Pennsylvania for more than 40 years. Has he ever had to use it? No. Has he ever pulled it? No. Never any call for it. I asked him if he’d had any private fistfights. He said, “Not since I became a man.”

Joe Frazier was never afraid of any man in a boxing ring. But he was afraid of heights, worms, the dark, ghosts and bad drivers.

Frazier and I were alone at his table. Denise was running an errand. They had been house hunting, and he was talking about the kind of place he wanted. “Room enough for the office and the kids and the grands. And more doors. I don’t like living in a place with only one way out.” He nodded at the windows, which were covered with drapes so he wouldn’t have to look out at the balcony or the 20-floor drop to the street below. “Here there’s only one way out unless you want to take the long, wrong way.” Then he talked about his bedroom.

“Sometimes it gets cold in there. I’d bet against Daddy and Mama, Granddad and my brothers, all in the graveyard, that somebody died in that room. I can see her between sleeping and waking. A lady comes in there, and she never turns around. I don’t see no face. And I say, ‘Why you coming in here?’ But she don’t say nothing, and she walks out. I need to move out of this place, because I’m afraid of her. I never was afraid when that bell rang. Never. I’ll drive anywhere I want to go. But I don’t like staying inside that room. Somebody lost their life in there, and they’re not happy. Something went bad in there.” I asked if he’d seen spirits before. “No,” he said, “but I can dream death and bad things. Remember when the plane crashed with all the Olympic kids? Marvis was supposed to go. The coach wanted him to go. I told him he was not going to get on that plane. I had a bad dream that the plane crashed. And it happened. I told him, ‘You can’t go. Something bad’s happening.’ And he didn’t go and it saved his life.”

Frazier was referring to the March 14, 1980 plane crash in Poland. Seventy-seven people died. Twenty-two members of the U.S. amateur boxing team were killed on their way to an international tournament.

Marvis Frazier confirms his father’s story. He and two other members of the gym’s amateur team were scheduled to compete in Poland. The 20-year-old Marvis obeyed his father and stayed home. His teammates Tyrone Clayton and Lonnie Young were killed in the crash.

In late summer 2010 Denise was unwell, and Frazier insisted she see a doctor. When she needed surgery he stayed with her, sleeping in her hospital room on a folding cot. When he was hospitalized with liver cancer in fall 2011, she slept on a cot in his room until she took him home.

Earlier, they had moved out of the haunted apartment into two adjoining apartments. One was set up as an office with a little gym where Joe could hit the bags. He’d escaped the ghost, and he had two exits.

It was there, with Denise beside him, that Joe Frazier died.

His white coffin lay in state at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center for two days as thousands of people stood in line to pay respect. Thousands more crammed his funeral service at the Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. The great boxers came, and politicians and the press. Word of his death fired around the world. In his time Joe Frazier was one of the most recognizable faces on the planet, and his death was global news because of the three amazing hours he’d spent in the ring decades before with Muhammad Ali. But there was always more to Joe Frazier.

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read more: sports, magazine, boxing, issue march 2012

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