Smokin’ Joe: Inside ‘The life of Joe Frazier’

If you’ve visited the boxing section of a bookshop over the past few years, you’ll have noticed the plethora of books devoted to Muhammad Ali. Understandable, perhaps, but there’s also been a need for a closer look at his greatest rival Joe Frazier for some time. Frazier, after all, handed Ali his first loss in one of the biggest pop culture events of the last 50 years, dubbed ‘The Fight Of The Century’. 

Thankfully, that void has been filled by Mark Kram Jr.’s excellent Smokin’ Joe: The life of Joe Frazier, which was released earlier this year. The writer discussed his book and the lasting legacy of Frazier in Philadelphia and beyond with Boxing Social.

“I’d grown up around boxing and my father was the lead sportswriter at Sports Illustrated and covered all three Ali-Frazier fights,” Kram told Boxing Social. “Then, as a newspaper man, I’d gone to the Philadelphia Daily News in 1987, so I was around Joe quite a bit during his later years. After he passed away, it dawned on me that nothing comprehensive had been done on Joe’s career. And he was certainly one of the key characters in one of the great sporting dramas of the last century. So, I felt he was deserving of a full-length biography, if only to bring some closure to his life.”

Although born in the small city of Beaufort, located in South Carolina, Frazier’s amateur skills were sharpened in Philadelphia, a city long associated with boxing. Indeed, the mythical Philly gym wars were both a help and a hindrance to Frazier, according to Kram. 

“My old colleague Stan Hochman, who was a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, said the gym wars in Philadelphia destroyed more careers than cocaine,” he said. “The fights in the gym were often tougher than those on fight night. It was a real test of manhood inside those gyms. They did destroy careers because guys would come in and leave it in the gym…and Joe was very much a part of that.” 

Indeed, Frazier’s handlers had to shield him from the brutality and relentlessness of the sparring, often going to extreme lengths to protect their man. The famous gym Joe ran in Philly wasn’t designed simply for his own convenience, but for his own protection. 

“One of the reasons his management group Cloverlay opened up the Joe Frazier Gym, was so Joe wouldn’t be travelling around the city, getting hurt. Because you really could get hurt in that sparring,” said Kram. 

Creating a gym wasn’t the only thing that the Cloverlay management company did to ensure their fighter stayed primed to fulfil his potential. It’s often underestimated how much good management can do for a fighter and Kram’s book lifts the lid on that side of Joe’s life. “He was very well managed, if you look at his career. Yank Durham and Eddie Futch, they didn’t overly expose Joe. He fought at most twice a year. They were careful,” he said.

That schooling and clever management eventually made Frazier ‘the man’ in the heavyweight division during its glory days in the late 1960s and 1970s. But legendary boxers are often defined by great rivalries and the trilogy of fights between Frazier and Ali was arguably the ultimate expression of the sacrifices fighters make inside and outside of the ring. Much has been written about the very personal nature of the feud between the two men, and Kram expands upon that in his book.

“Joe didn’t understand Ali, and Ali didn’t understand the fact he wasn’t understood,” said Kram.

This misunderstanding, after the pair were initially friendly, only increased as a meeting in the ring became inevitable. 

“Boxers, as violent and destructive as they can be inside the ring, there’s a fraternity that exists amongst them outside the ring, and Joe was very much a believer in that,” said Kram. “Fellow boxers didn’t have a better friend than Joe, he was always there to help them out. But he didn’t understand all the hysteria Ali was creating between them outside the ring. He thought it was a lack of respect and unnecessary, because the fights were going to draw, they were a worldwide phenomenon. It made him furious.”

Indeed, the personal animosity between the pair nearly boiled over prior to any in-ring fight, as Kram explains. “Ali even moved to Philadelphia during his exile, right in Joe’s backyard, constantly pestering him, and showing up unannounced whenever Joe might have an appearance, heckling and trying to get under his skin,” he said. “At one point, Joe was so angry, two sources told me he reached for a tyre iron and was going to take after Ali before the first fight. That’s in the book, but you’ll also see he had to be calmed down. There might never have been a fight of the century if he’d have let go of that [tyre iron].” 

Many have wondered how Frazier felt towards Ali as they both aged and years of toil in the ring affected them. Smokin’ Joe: The life of Joe Frazier does an excellent job at exploring that complex and volatile relationship, which Kram told me haunted Joe after he lost their final fight in Manila. “There was bound to be bad feelings, especially on Joe’s part as he felt he was deprived of his chance (to win the trilogy) when Eddie Futch stopped the Manila fight, and that really lingered inside of him, in a destructive way,” said Kram. “In the end, I think they found peace and I felt it was important to bring that aspect of their relationship out [in the book].”

Frazier’s last successful heavyweight title defence (WRTD4). Photo: WBC.

One of the most moving elements of the book is the portrayal of the relationship between Futch and Frazier. It was long believed that Frazier never forgave Futch for stopping the third Ali fight in the 14th round, yet Kram unearthed evidence which showed Frazier eventually came to recognise the compassion his trainer demonstrated. 

“Eddie Futch is sort of the moral centre of my book. He’d seen seven fighters die in the ring over the years and he didn’t want Joe to be the eighth,” said Kram. “He loved Joe and felt he had a lot to live for, and it wasn’t worth it [to go back out for the 15th round]. Eddie saved him from real potential harm, and maybe even saved his life, because Joe didn’t have any business being out there in the 15th round against Ali.”

Frazier also had two memorable meetings with another significant figure in the history of the heavyweight division, George Forman. Despite Foreman brutally dispatching Frazier inside two rounds during their first fight, the pair never engaged in the kind of blood feud which defined Frazier and Ali, according to Kram. A reason for that was a shared experience of poverty and adversity in their youth.

“George grew up in the fifth ward in Houston, in a terribly rough environment. I think that really scarred him,” said Kram. “So, they did have similar backgrounds. They were good friends during their careers and there wasn’t any of that animosity that Joe had for Ali.”

Whilst Frazier and Foreman had a cordial relationship, the pair had vastly differing exits from the ring. “George was more or less reborn as a fighter, and I think Joe envied that somewhat. I think Joe in his mind never really retired,” said Kram. “If he could have come back, he would have come back. He just loved it. He fought Jumbo Cummings [after a five-year lay-off], which was a farce. He looked terrible and was overweight. It wasn’t pleasant to see him in decline, like it isn’t with any fighter.” 

One of the saddest aspects of Joe Frazier’s legacy is that his gym, designed to shelter him, was closed up and sold after his death in 2011. “You can still see the faint outline, which says Joe’s Frazier’s Gym, which is chiselled into the concrete façade. But it’s now a store for cheap furniture,” said Kram. “But when you think about the fighters and the journalists and all the people who went through there in the glory days, it’s almost a landmark, and it’s been left to ruin in many ways. It’s sad that it hasn’t been used as some type of museum or recreational centre for the community because Joe was such a significant figure in the city for those years.” 

Whilst the literature devoted to Frazier will never rival that of Ali’s in terms of volume, it’s nice to see that his life and career, warts and all, has received the critical appraisal it richly deserved. “As I say in the book, he was a good man,” reflected Kram. “He wasn’t a perfect man, but he was a good man, and he did a lot of good in the world, or tried to. His intentions were good. When I was writing the book, I didn’t come across one person who had a bad word to say about Joe, and that’s highly unusual.”

When asked why Frazier was remembered so fondly by those who knew him from both near and far, Kram was quick to provide an answer. “I guess they saw themselves in Joe, or they saw what they’d like themselves to be; a tough, never back down sort of person. And he was. He never took a step back in the ring.”

‘Smokin’ Joe: The life of Joe Frazier’ is available now, published by Harper Collins. 

Feature Image courtesy of: www.joefrazier.com