He was heavyweight champion of the world and Ali’s greatest foil, but Joe Frazier was more than just a legendary boxer
On a summer day the year before he died, I sat with Smokin’ Joe Frazier at a big table in his Philadelphia apartment. He picked at a plate of grapes and thought about growing up in the 1950s. “We all wanted to be men quick, ‘so I can do whatever I want to do.’ That’s how we thought at the time. And then we got old and said, ‘Doggone, I’m getting old.’ You get too old and you think, How long have I got to live?” He grinned and shook his head. “We’re never satisfied. All we can think about is doing things that are crazy and trying to get away with them. I’m not sure if there’s a heaven or a hell.
We have to find out for ourselves when we take our last breath.”
Joe Frazier took his last breath 7 November 2011 at the age of 67.
He was heavyweight champion of the world and a presence on any list of all-time greats. He gave his title belt to ex-boxer Nelson Mandela and framed the thank-you note. He had 11 beloved children by several beautiful women, and enough grandchildren and great-grandchildren to fill the bleachers. He did a lot of good for some people and some good for a lot of people. He made friends and he kept them. He danced and sang every chance he got. Like any mortal, Frazier had regrets, grief, catastrophes and the occasional rage. But in general he was a happy man. He woke up every morning eager for what the day would bring.
On a sweltering night in Philadelphia’s city centre, the natty gent with the panama hat and cane taps his way out of an apartment building. He nods to his doorman and tacks toward a gleaming Escalade. As he passes a bar, out of the door bursts a pack of lawyers, or maybe bankers or brokers, yelling, “It’s Smokin’ Joe.” The leader, a silverback in immaculate pinstripes, says, “I was at ringside when you beat Jerry Quarry.” The Armani-clad pack yips, “My dad worshipped you,” and “I’ve got all your fights on DVD.” Frazier’s spine, bent by a car wreck a decade earlier and multiple surgeries since, straightens reflexively. The panama takes a rakish tilt; the cane becomes a swagger stick. Notebooks and bar mats and napkins reach toward him. Frazier grins and jokes and signs everything. The Escalade’s driver informs Frazier’s friends in the rear seats that they’ll be a little late for an event that night at which Smokin’ Joe is an honoured guest. Frazier never turned his back on a fan. “You’ve got to respect the fans,” he would say. Fighters are defined by their opponents. No boxer is considered great unless he has battled great foes. The three historic fights between Frazier and Muhammad Ali in the 1970s formed the most significant sports rivalry of the 20th Century. Boxing was still a mainstream force. Major bouts were broadcast by the three national networks, and it was a golden age of heavyweight talent. But Frazier and Ali meant more than the sport. Their collisions grew out of an era boiling in racial clashes, civil rights, Vietnam war protests and the explosion of free sex, psychedelic drugs and rock and roll. Ali and his handlers, from the black separatist sect known as the Nation of Islam, surfed the turmoil and used it.
In 1967 Ali was stripped of his world title and banned from boxing because he refused to be drafted into the US Army. Ali’s stand won him a passionate following in the antiwar movement. The master showman presented himself as the martyred anti-establishment hero, a proud defender of his race and the only legitimate heavyweight champion. Ali earned a living by speaking on campuses and elsewhere, including at a Ku Klux Klan rally, where he was welcomed because of the Nation of Islam’s philosophy of racial separatism.
Frazier and his wife had five children by then, making him exempt from the draft. Though Frazier was a lifelong Baptist, he wasn’t bothered by Ali’s religion. The Frazier line was “He can pray to a hole in the ground for all I care.” Ali moved to Philadelphia during his exile. Frazier befriended him, cooperated with his publicity stunts and worked to restore his right to compete in the ring. Frazier also fought for and won the world titles Ali had lost. But he knew he would never be seen as the real champion until he fought Ali.
Granted his right to box again, Ali signed for a shot at Frazier’s title. He’d always joked about his opponents, but for Smokin’ Joe he threw verbal acid. Ali painted Frazier as an Uncle Tom, the white man’s champion, a betrayer of his people, an unworthy pretender to the heavyweight crown and stupid and ugly to boot. A lot of people believed Ali, which made life rough for the Frazier family. Joe Frazier felt betrayed. Many years later, Frazier’s oldest son, Marvis, commented, “Everybody said it was just Ali doing publicity. But you weren’t on the end of that publicity.”
The death threats came by phone and letter. Insults spouted from radios and televisions. Accusations erupted from the crowd jamming Frazier’s Philadelphia gym to watch him train. It was early 1971, still winter, and the 27-year-old Frazier was preparing to defend his title in what would eventually be labelled the greatest fight of the 20th Century. But Frazier was already under siege.
His tires were slashed. His manager’s car was stolen. His dog was run over and killed. Each fighter would get a purse of $2.5 million, but Philadelphia police had to guard the Frazier family home night and day. Cops surrounded Frazier through the icy miles of his predawn roadwork. “I felt like a jailbird,” he said. “I worried about my family. But it didn’t keep me from doing my job.”
The fight was set for 8 March 1971. Every ticket to Madison Square Garden sold within hours. In closed-circuit theatres and on televisions around the globe more than 300 million people would watch it. Frank Sinatra arranged to photograph the fight for Life magazine so he could get a ringside seat. Actor Burt Lancaster did colour commentary for the broadcast. Political and social ramifications aside, it was a battle between two great undefeated heavyweight champions in their prime. In stylistic terms alone it was natural magic – Frazier, the small but ferocious slugger, versus Ali, the tall, dancing boxer.
Their opposing physiques and styles reflected diametric personalities. Frazier was an old-school Spartan, an admirer of Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis and a staunch proponent of fair play. He was a blue-collar warrior. Ali was something else – a golden boy, a comic braggart whose rhetoric was scripted by the Nation of Islam. He had the grace and skill of Sugar Ray Robinson but took his theatrical cues from pro wrestling’s most flamboyant heel, Gorgeous George. People hated him or adored him. There was no in-between.
Joseph William Frazier was born 12 January 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 shovelling 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 defence. 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 US 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 medallist 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 memorising 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 16 August, 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. 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 4 March 1968 in Madison Square Garden to win the New York title, which had clout despite its state limitations.
Two years later, on 16 February 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 PhD 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 centre 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, long-time 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 8 March 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. 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 30 August 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 14 March 1980 plane crash in Poland. Seventy-seven people died. Twenty-two members of the US 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 hospitalised 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 Centre 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 recognisable 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.
By Katherine Dunn
Published by Playboy South Africa May 2012