The taxi ride from the stylish hotel where Joe Frazier lives to the stripped-down, shuttered gym where his name is carved into its stone façade is a tale of two cities. The Joe Frazier Gym, large for-sale signs peering out of every window, once the meeting place of the neighborhood’s young men who hoped to use their fists to fight their way out of poverty, is now a forgotten patch of Philadelphia.
In the old days, “Smokin’ Joe” and his son Marvis were at the gym to teach these young men not only how to be great boxers but also how to be solid citizens. The gym was a shining example of “giving back,” and a venue from which to teach the Joe Frazier Creed that-faded and addressing an empty, cavernous space-is still posted on the wall: “We sacrifice because when we give something up, something will come back; we are disciplined because without discipline there is nothing.”
It’s a bone-chilling, rainy day when I step out of the cab and into the gym, dark and bare-save for the boxing ring in the center of the room. Smokin’ Joe Frazier, dressed in black and wearing a black fedora, sits in a chair in front of the ring. He leans on a cane-not from ring injuries over the years but because he is recovering from back injuries caused by a car accident. I had a clear memory of Frazier, the solemn warrior and fierce competitor. Today, he’s relaxed, and smiling in anticipation of the gathering of his grandchildren for the GRAND cover shoot.
Much of what has defined Joe Frazier has come from the louder voices of others, not from the soft-spoken Frazier himself. So, it’s a bit startling to encounter his great, engaging smile-a smile the world saw too little of as he fought his way to become an Olympic gold-medal winner (1964) and eventually the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion (1968-71). Expectedly, Frazier dominates the room with his laughter, amusing the visitors as well as himself by playfully shadowboxing and doing a (good) imitation of the late sportscaster Howard Cosell’s ringside play-by-play.
Slowly, Frazier’s family files in, and quickly it becomes a genuine love fest. “Pop!” “Poppy!” are the greetings of the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren (he has 11, 26 and 6, respectively).
Frazier embraces the girls and shakes hands with the boys. He remarks on who needs haircuts or who needs to pull his pants up, but it’s done with warmth.
Frazier says he was a strict disciplinarian as a father but is a softy as a grandfather. “I was more like my dad. Dad was the kind of guy who talks two times. Three times and you better start running. But I’ve done my job, and now it’s their turn to do their job. I spent the money to put them in the best of colleges. I did the best I could by them. I taught my kids to be understanding and tolerant. It’s their job to teach their kids the same thing.”
Frazier grew up in a household with stepbrothers and stepsisters. “I was one of 17. Daddy wasn’t a bad guy, but he was a rolling stone…. It didn’t matter. We all got along. Mama accepted it. If [the stepchildren of his father’s mistresses] came for breakfast or supper, she’d feed them all. I got 11 of my own, so I think I’m like my Daddy.”
It’s no secret that not all 11 children are the product of his marriage to Florence, but that seems irrelevant when watching the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren interact: Frazier’s spirit is binding.
“I figure if I am strong enough to make them, then I’m strong enough to love them and be responsible for them,” he says.
But he also says that he wasn’t around as much as he wanted to be when they were growing up. He recalls returning from Tokyo in 1968 after winning the Olympic gold medal. His son Marvis, who was 4 at the time, met him at the airport and hardly recognized him. “Over the years, I wasn’t around a whole lot. When I wasn’t fighting, I was out having fun. There were times in my kids’ lives when Daddy was just a voice on the phone.”
Marvis remembers things differently. “Daddy was always there for us. When he couldn’t be home, we understood. He spent hours and hours on the phone checking up on us and letting us know he was there for us.” Marvis, who was also a boxer, recalls he lost an important fight and felt he’d let his father down. When Frazier came into the dressing room, Marvis said, “Oh, Daddy, I messed up so bad. Can you forgive me? Pop didn’t hesitate.” Frazier wrapped his arms around Marvis and told him he loved him, he was proud of him.
Frazier watches the room seem to get larger and louder each time the door opens and blasts of wet and icy cold air let in the warm and adoring family members.
Suddenly, he calls out, “Yesterday!” It’s the nickname Frazier has for Tammy, Marvis’s daughter. Poppy and Tammy have a special bond, dating from when Tammy’s mother died from colon and liver cancer. Then, in 2001, cancer struck again-and this time, it was Tammy. She was in college, she was 22, and she had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Tammy says, “Poppy was on the phone with me all the time. He’d say, ‘Yesterday’-that’s his nickname for me, because he jokes that I grew like a weed overnight-‘Yesterday, you have to be strong. You have to keep fighting.’ He did everything to keep me going.”
True to the Frazier tradition, Tammy fought back. And won: The cancer is in remission. As with her father and her grandfather, sports played a role in keeping her strong and motivated. In Tammy’s case, it was basketball. And when she was well enough to play her last college game, Pop came to see her play. Tammy knew Frazier was there, even before she saw him. “The crowd went crazy for him. You know, when my sister [Tiara] and I were little, we didn’t know much about what Pop did. When we went out with him, everybody knew his name, but we just thought he had a lot of friends. We didn’t know he was famous because it was never about him. It was always about us and what we were doing. Poppy is a big teddy bear. He’s got a soft heart.”
Granddaughter Franchesca Frazier-Lopez (owner and operator of http://shearsonwheelzs.com/ a full-service traveling hair and nails salon) agrees. “My favorite memory of him is when he came to my graduation. He didn’t want to make a scene, but everybody wanted to see him and say hello. It’s that way everywhere he goes. People love him.”
The GRAND tribute to Frazier is not lost on any of the family members. Thirty-two grandchildren and great-grandchildren with their own parents take over the upstairs room where Joe once kept his own apartment. They vie for their turns at the mirrors and the sinks, primping for the camera. The gym, even in its barren state, is a playground for the little ones. They punch the heavy bag hanging from the ceiling, barely getting it to budge, and chase each other around the room. Frazier enjoys the scene and gets up from his chair to give the young ones a lesson on how to hit a heavy bag. The devastating left hook is still there.
Smiling broadly, Frazier punishes the bag in quick and measured blows, knocking back the younger adult (my starstruck husband) who is steadying the champ’s bag. Frazier’s not half-trying, yet he’s made his point: I’ve still got it.
One by one, the Fraziers climb into the ring. Perched high above them on a ladder, GRAND’s photographer takes his best shot-and then some. All too soon it’s over, but the family isn’t ready to break up the party. They linger to speak to Pop and have their own cameras to snap memories.
Frazier looks around him, amused. “For some reason, my daughters had sons and my boys had girls. I don’t know how that happened.”
Marvis, who never seems to wander far away from Frazier’s side, says wistfully that he doesn’t know when the family will be together like this again.
Soon, the gym is empty. Frazier takes another long look at the abandoned place where he invested his heart and soul.
“It burns me up,” he says. “The gym needs to be here. All these years, I did it out of love and to help my brothers and sisters. I tried to help a lot of fighters. When they got good and when they got better, they walked away. What can you do? I’ve been all over the world. Paul Anka rewrote the song [“My Way”] for me. He wrote, ‘I’ll fight them my way.’ There ain’t been a dull moment in my life.”