The Real Rocky: Smokin Joe Frazier Embodied the Gritty Heart and Soul of Philadelphia

By Chris Murray

For the Philadelphia Sunday Sun and the Chris Murray Report

I know that tourists who come to Philadelphia get a kick out of taking pictures next to the Rocky statue at the Art Museum. After all, the fictional character of Rocky Balboa is supposed to represent the spirit of the city’s rags to riches blue-collar work ethic.

I’ve always thought that it was silly to have a fictional character to represent the city’s toughness when you had the real thing in one “Smokin” Joe Frazier. If anybody embodied heart and soul of this city in the ring, it was Frazier, who died earlier this week of liver cancer. The former heavyweight champion and Olympic gold-medalist was 67.

“The statue in everybody’s mind is Joe Frazier,” said HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant. “That represents a fighter that never let you down with a backward step. He was in the line of (Jack) Dempsey and (Rocky) Marciano who thrilled you with their skill and will.”

Frazier’s epic battles with Muhammad Ali were bigger than any fiction that Sylvester Stallone could ever conjure up on film. Not even the story in Greek mythology of the fight between Achilles and Hector could ever live up to the trilogy of Ali-Frazier.

In the ring, Frazier and Ali made each other great while pushing the boundaries of physical pain. In their first battle in 1971, dubbed the “Fight of the Century,” Frazier’s relentless style of constant forward movement neutralized Ali’s quick left jab and lateral movement and gave Frazier a unanimous decision that included a 15th round knockdown.

“What happened was you had two guys of polar opposite styles and great wills battling and it became a memorable drama we’re still talking about,” Merchant said.

Part III of their trilogy, “The Thrilla in Manila,” was the most brutal of all. Both fighters were pushed to the brink. At one point in the fight, Ali said he considered quitting and that Frazier had pushed him the closest to death that he had ever known.

“Neither was at his best, but both stripped down to who they were inside,” Merchant said. “Even Frazier, who was embittered at Ali, gave full credit to Ali for his dogged toughness.”

The fight was settled when Frazier, who was blind in one eye, could not answer the bell for 14th round. Frazier was beaten, but not vanquished. When he was announced the winner, an exhausted Ali, whom had taken a barrage of punches from Frazier throughout the fight, could barely raise his arms to celebrate his victory.

Frazier held the heavyweight title from 1968 to 1973, losing it to George Foreman in a second-round knockout. Even in getting knocked down six times, Frazier just kept moving forward.

“When the bell rings, he would not back up from King Kong,” Foreman said. “I know, I knocked him down six times. When our fight was over, Joe was on his feet looking for me.”

The buildup of that first Ali-Frazier fight was shrouded in the volatile politics of the Vietnam War protests and racial unrest of the late 1960s, early 1970s. The fight was not only a contrast in styles, but it reflected the nation’s divisions.

“As the big event loomed, people who didn’t like Ali for his political and social views as well as for his unique way of promoting himself as a showman and entertainer, sides were drawn up,” Merchant said. “Through no fault of Joe’s, he came to represent the establishment. That made the fight more than just a fight, it made the fight more than just a fight with social and perhaps even political implications.”

For many in the African American community during that time, Frazier was unfairly cast as an “Uncle Tom” or the white man’s champion against Ali, who refused induction into the U.S. Army based on religious grounds. At the time, there were many white people back then who saw Frazier as All-American foil to Ali, who was considered un-American for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. In reality, Frazier just simply saw himself as a fighter.

Casting Frazier as some sort of sellout was just as wrong as Ali’s cause was absolutely right. What folks didn’t understand through the emotional tone of the politics was that Frazier embodied the Black experience in America just as much as Ali did.

Frazier’ came up from very humble beginnings from Beaufort, SC where his father was sharecropper. Rocky punching on raw meat was based on the real life Frazier once used an old burlap bag that he filled with corncobs, rags, a brick and Spanish moss that grew on trees and hung over a tree, creating a makeshift heavy bag.

“Not only was he a great fighter but also a great man. He lived as he fought with
courage and commitment at a time when African Americans in all spheres of life were
engaged in a struggle for emancipation and respect,” said legendary boxing promoter Don King. “Smokin Joe brought honor, dignity and pride for his people, the American people, and brought the nation together as only sports can do.”

In the midst of folks calling him sort of white man’s champion and his children getting the same treatment from their school mates, it was widely reported that Frazier helped Ali to get his license back and lent him money as he was taking his fight to the U.S. Supreme Court.

That’s not ‘Uncle Tomery at all, it’s about a brother helping out another brother when he’s down and out. That’s the essence the true essence of being one of the “bruhs’ and Joe Frazier was definitely a true brother.


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