Joe Frazier was buried this week. Contributing editor-at-large Tess Lawrence recalls her interview with the former heavyweight champ in 1975.
WHERE THERE'S SMOKIN' JOE, THERE'S MORE IRE THAN FIRE
Joe Frazier was buried this week, along with his cancerous liver and unfulfilled dreams and in both he will not be alone.
Ringside at the Philadelphia Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church were his close-knit family and paying respects were the likes of Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes and the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
Contributing editor-at-large, Tess Lawrence, recalls, with fondness and a sepia nostalgia, her out-of-the-ring encounter with the 1964 Tokyo Olympics Medallist who, despite a broken thumb, had walloped Australian Athol McQueen on the way to Gold.
I met Frazier in Melbourne, 1975, at a time in his life when the impending crossroad was causing him much personal angst. He was to fight Jimmy Ellis for the second time on March 2 (Oz time) at what was then called the St Kilda Junction Oval. Frazier won on a TKO in the 9th round.
Before the fight, I was invited to watch Smokin' Joe workout. There was a lot of smoke. Not so much fire as ire.
The notion of two human beings bashing one another in a confined space to the bloodlust applause of a paying audience is either the noble savage, at best, or the ignoble savage, at worst — depending on your philosophical footwork. The atmosphere is eclectic if not electric.
When you cast a cursory glance ringside, the variations of social structure, race, and sex represented in the crowd defies any proper analysis; the sharing of the tribal heartbeat, perhaps.
Could it be that there is a glory in the symbolism of two men locked in unarmed combat; a greater glory surely than the type of intellectual nobility that, say, designs the likes of the Neutron Bomb that kills people but leaves buildings intact.
BRAINS FLOATING IN JELLO
One contemplates all sorts of things at the ringside and not always the fight. Fighters get hooked on the atmosphere. In what other sport does the participant find it so difficult to retire; to hang up their gloves before their brain is floating in Jello.
After the bright lights are dimmed, the polyester silk robes and gladiatorial chrome belts are put away and the Lord, his Men and their Women move on out, there's always a knuckleful of 'deadbeat pugs' about, getting high on smelling the sweat, listening to the emptiness and hearing the cheers of the crowd, like a child listens for the sound of the sea in a shell.
Just as many broken hearts as broken noses.
They were there loitering with intent when Joe had his workout. He saw them too. Every now and again one of them would call out. They'd be shadow sparring.
“An-a-left’, an-a-right, keep movin', a right jab, now-a-left, you got him.”
And he would hear them and when he'd break and go back to the corner, those leather-bound lethal weapons of his working like pistons, he'd turn and salute his long-spent brother, and you just knew he was thinking there but for the grace...and you knew he was thinking it was never going to happen to him. That he'd never take it that far, but that's what all the others said, and he knew that too.
And they'd salute back and look around to see who was looking. “D’ya see Joe say g'day?” they'd say, pleased as punch.
On fight night, you see a lot of women, but Eddie Futch, Frazier's trainer doesn't like them hanging around at the workout. It's not their business. He doesn't want his fighters distracted; worried about lookin' good when they should be feeling mean.
Frazier was being feted, like a God but at times he was irritated by the obsequious behaviour of some of the minions.
Futch kept a pensive eye on Frazier. He got a bit toey when Frazier started opening up and talking about his mother and family life.
FUTCH: MEAN AND LOOKIN' FOR BLOOD
Later on Futch took me aside.
“I’ve never heard him talk about his folks like that; but I don't like it when my man opens up about himself — makes him too vulnerable, too sentimental, and I want him mean and lookin' for blood."
Futch sooled Frazier on Ellis. Joe whupped him good and proper and dropped the scalp at Futch's feet.
Please read on...
'In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of Ev'ry glove that laid him down...'
You fill your nostrils with the air. The air is steaming with the smell of human sweat — a heady perfume that drugs the spectators like aphrodisia. In the clearing stands a boxer. A black hulk of a man. His name is Joe Frazier. People are paying two dollars to watch him workout in the gym.
The ticket sellers are doing a brisk trade.
I enter the boxer's temple, bypassing the money-men. To one side is the sacred tabernacle and altar — the ring. The Lord of the Rings himself is flanked by his high priests — more than the 12 apostles and the inevitable PR men to ensure there is no crucifixion, not until the fight at least. The workout is going well.
A vanguard of journalists and cameramen are on the job. The promoters are happy with the way things are shaping up; more importantly with the way Joe is shaping up. And, hey man, does Joe Frazier shape up well. Right now this muscle-packed flesh machine is having his stomach rammed with a medicine ball. Every time his partner thuds the ball into Joe's stomach a grunt cannons out of the muscled gut.
The crowd is mesmerised by Frazier's wizardry. Sweat is pouring from his head like a burst dam and coursing down every visible muscle on his body. "You can kill him Joe. You can slay him," yells a pug-nosed elder from the crowd. Others murmur agreement. Except the voice which yells
“I wouldn't bet on it, cobber.”
Frazier doesn't flinch. He just keeps on skipping; getting ready to meet 'him', his opponent — Jimmy Ellis.
'Such are promises
All lies and jest
Still, a man hears what
he wants to hear
And disregards the rest.'
Frazier throws the skipping rope into the air. "Ninenty-nine — 100" he hisses.
"Okay fellas, that's it," calls Frazier's trainer-manager, Eddie Futch.
The press move in. The performance is over. A battery of microphones are presented for approval. Eddie Futch helps Frazier to get into his brown and white hooded dressing robe. Frazier looks like a Franciscan monk. He even looks pious. "Hold it. Will the gentlemen of the press please come over here." He beckons to a conference table. Joe and the press obediently move towards the table, leaving the multitude behind them.
This is sacred ground that I trespass. There is the air of celibacy around a boxer and his men.
The conference goes smoothly — and swiftly. Joe keeps his cool. Every now and then he turns to his left hand man, Eddie Futch, and says "I don't know, what'd you say about that boss ?"
And the boss tells the boys what he says.
Okay, man, the conference is over. That's it boys. Joe and his human train snake through the crowd and he goes to have a shower. "I bet you wish you could come to the shower with us sister," says one of Joe's merry men. Sure.
"Never mind, we'll see what we can do after he's finished," says the man. "But we can't push him too far today. He's had a rough schedule. He's liable to blow his stack."
DEEP THINKER LOVES CHINESE FOOD
I wait in the pressroom and have a drink with some of the PR men. "Yessir," one of them is saying.
"I first got to know Joe some while back. He's a great guy, a real deep thinker. He loves Chinese food."
Okay, so it all goes to build a picture. It could have been chopped liver. I have my back to the door. Joe Frazier comes in. I don't see him. I sense him. I turn around to face the flesh machine. Fresh shower. Fresh clothes. Fresh performance. His powerful physique is more than comfortable to look at. A fact that he is obviously aware of.
FRAZIER: WEAK HANDSHAKE
We shake hands. But it is a weak handshake and I swear it. His hands are huge. Maybe he can't get a decent grip on mine. I squeeze again. This time it keeps on coming.
"Hey, I saw you. You came up to my side of the ring. You went up behind the back of the ring. Don't you know that no woman is allowed to go behind the ring? What'd you want to go and do that for?"
So I tell the Lord of the Rings that I just wanted to see what it was like on the other side. He said that was OK. "I'm gonna talk to you for five minutes," says Milord. "And then I'm gonna leave ya," he says, explaining his tactics. We find an empty corner. And in the left corner sits Frazier, talking about his early childhood in South Carolina and about how his family was swamped in poverty.
WE WAS REAL POOR
"We was poor. I mean real poor. I mean you couldn't get no poorer." He uses his hands to express himself just as well away from the ropes as he does inside the ring.
He's got seven brothers and three sisters. "We never was hungry, because my Daddy was not the kind of man who would let his family go hungry. He died in 1965. My Mom and Dad worked as farmhands on a 10-acre farm we had."
"We grew things like peas, corn, sweet potato and other vegetables. Raised chicken and pigs — but just to feed our own family. I guess our home was not the best of homes. Just an average poor family home in South Carolina," says Joe, turning to his brother Tommy, who is his 'security assistant'.
They are both quiet for a minute. Remembering. Now the family is "scattered all over the place".
Joe is the youngest. "Yeah, I'm the baby of the family. And I've been fighting for 13 years"
'When I left my home
And my family,
I was no more than a boy
In the company of strangers...'
He starts to hammer out his vital statistics on boxing achievements and title bouts; amateur as well as professional. I stop writing. "Hey, why aren't you taking all this down?" says the flesh machine.
It is as if the machine reacts according to the button you press and if you don't press the right button then it throws the machine into disorder.
Because, I explain, I can get all of that from our files. Tell me things that I won't find in any files.
So he talks, very tenderly, about his mother. And how he's bought the 65 year-old lady a 365 acre plantation of her own. And how all the kids drop by from time to time, to make sure she's working out okay. One of his brothers runs the farm for her. Joe bought the plantation because his mother deserved it.
“Ah bought it for her to live on. That’s HER place."
I hear someone in the background try to take off the way Joe talks. Luckily Joe doesn't hear, otherwise the loud-mouth would find himself on the end of an articulate glove.
Joe's formal education quit when he left high school. He ain't sorry. "I don't think I would have got any further in what I'm doing if I had gone to college."
He gets a bit punchy if you start criticising boxing. "Look, to me, it's a good way of living. When I go into that ring, I go into it with my heart, mind, body and soul. I love it. And if any boxer doesn't love it, he should get out."
Does he have any conscience about damage he might inadvertently cause to another man's brain or body? He thinks momentarily.
"At that particular time in the ring, no I don't. I'm out there to fight. I'm out there to win.
But afterwards, if I think I might have hurt somebody — then I'm concerned. Then I am worried.
"But let me explain to you. Serious damage is not usually something that happens straight away in one fight. It might be something that happens to a particular boxer, an individual, over a period of years. It's something a boxer has got to make sure he doesn't do.
“Anyway, don't talk to me about injury and protection in boxing. I've seen your boys here and they play sports without any mouthguard, no shinpads, no headguard, no shoulder pads, no protection — no nothing. And they really slam into each other!
"So don't talk to me about injuries in boxing. You want to go and have a look at the injuries in other sports."
He's warming up now. Starting to throw a few head punches. And we're talking about the showman boxer and the great ego trip.
“Ego trip? Ego trip? It's not an ego trip! You think it's an ego trip to get up at four in the morning?"
Depends, I say. On what there is to wake up to. "Huh!" he hollers. "Do you think it's an ego trip to wake up in the morning to do training sessions?”
Well, no one ever paid $2 to watch me in a training session. He merely sweeps that aside in disgust.
“Look, when I'm in training, I'm fighting. All I can think of is getting my partner. I'm trying to take his head..."
We move over to the window. Joe poses for some pictures. In the background I notice Eddie Futch move up. He wants to take his boy back to the hotel to rest now.
ALL WE BLACK BOYS GOT EYES THIS COLOUR
I notice Joe is having difficulty with his left eye. It is very, very red and weeping.
“Is there something wrong with your eye, Joe?”
“No, there isn't!" he snaps, a little too quickly. I see Tommy exchange glances with Eddie.
Okay, so there isn't anything wrong with his eye. But it looks mighty red.
“All we black boys got eyes this colour!"
Joe, Tommy and Eddie all laugh. I don't laugh. Joe notices.
"I'm only teasing," he says. His eye still looks red.
The Lord of the Rings goes home to his hotel room, complete with priests and apostles.
When Joe goes, the room feels empty. I go back to the gym for a last look. The man said the $2 ticket to watch Joe train allowed you to stay on to watch Ellis.
Not many people do. There is no crowd for Jimmy. Only a handful of stragglers and a pocketful of mumbles.
'...In the clearing stands a boxer’
Jimmy Boy Ellis...
‘I am leaving, I am leaving
But the fighter still remains. '