Hard times, great memories for Joe Frazier
Joe Frazier spoke with Newsday's Wallace Matthews Thursday, two days before the 37th anniversary of Frazier's epic decision over Muhammad Ali at Madison Square Garden.
by Wallace Matthews
Joe Frazier's moment in time is frozen on the wall behind his head. The famous left hook has found its target, and the target is in that strange half-standing, half-sitting posture that fighters assume when their next stop is the floor.
The target, of course, is Muhammad Ali. That moment in time, one millisecond pulled out of 45 of the most furious minutes ever fought by two heavyweights, is the reason Frazier is here today, in a luxury apartment 20 stories above downtown Philadelphia, being asked once more to recount an event that took place nearly four decades ago.
He is only too glad to oblige. "From the time I dusted off The Butterfly," he says, using his faintly derisive nickname for Ali, "life's been good."
Frazier is 64 years old, a lifelong diabetic and blind in one eye since his youth, a result of cataracts from too many shots to the eyes in the ring. And that was before life really got tough.
These days, he can't get around without the aid of a walker, can't negotiate the short distance from his apartment door to the elevator without a wheelchair. Still, he says, "The Lord's been good to me."
He has the pictures of himself dusting The Butterfly, three large black-and-white blowups of that murderous Frazier left hook crashing against Ali's jaw from three different angles. He has a golden medallion around his neck, a many-spiked crown beneath his nickname, "Smoke." He has a few bucks, although probably not as many as he should.
Most of all, he has the memory of one night, 37 years ago Saturday, on which Joe Frazier, one of 16 children of a migrant worker from Beaufort, S.C., was the most famous and important athlete in the world.
"That night, I don't think nobody could have beat that man," he says, referring to himself. And he is right. Frazier's gut-busting effort against Ali stands as one of the greatest single performances ever achieved by any athlete in any sport.
"Sometimes, when things ain't going right for me for a day or two, I watch the fight," he said. "I look at it, and I thank the Lord for what He have done for me, for where He have brought me from. And here I am."
Unlike so many athletes and entertainers who come to resent their association with a single game, a single song, a single film role, Frazier has come to accept and appreciate that the greatest day of his life occurred on March 8, 1971. "That was my moment," he said. "Where would I be without that?"
The answer is, probably barely remembered, along with dozens of other champion boxers whose careers were good but not transcendent.
What Frazier accomplished that night against Ali at Madison Square Garden elevated him to a pantheon inhabited by a select few. Along with other sports icons of his era, the likes of Joe Namath, Tom Seaver and Willis Reed, Smokin' Joe provided us a truly unforgettable New York sports moment.
"That was a good day," he allowed.
Joe Frazier hasn't had what most people would consider a good day in six years, since a 2002 car accident outside the gym he owns in North Philadelphia left him with a split spine. On Feb. 20, he underwent 61/2 hours of surgery to remove calcified bone from the area. Just eight days ago, he had yet another operation -- his sixth -- to remove a hematoma that had formed in the wound.
Frazier got out of the hospital Monday, and after a period of recuperation at home, he faces countless weeks, if not months, of rehabilitation that he hopes will allow him not only to walk but to train once again.
The man who once began every round by rubbing his gloves together like a hungry man preparing to dig into Thanksgiving dinner is facing this latest test, a tougher challenge even than dusting The Butterfly, with the same kind of determination.
"I'm not sure if that was the last operation," he said. "But I'll be back in the gym again, hitting the bags, riding the bike. I just can't take too many more beatings."
Even before the accident, Frazier had taken worse beatings in life than he ever took in the ring. In the past four decades, he has seen his health decline, mostly because of the diabetes and high blood pressure, and much of the fortune he earned in the ring trickle away, in part because of a Bucks County, Pa., land deal that went bad.
His relationship with his eldest daughter, Jacquelyn Frazier-Lyde, has deteriorated to the point that she did not know her father had been in a hospital until she was informed by a reporter.
Instead of living in luxury like Ali and his other contemporaries -- George Foreman, Larry Holmes and Ken Norton -- the divorced Frazier was living along in an apartment above his gym on a rugged stretch of North Broad Street. According to his representatives, Frazier earns a "six-figure" income through personal appearances and memorabilia signings, but much of his money goes to the support of his family. He has 11 children and 26 grandchildren.
"You make 'em, take care of 'em," he says. And he does, although according to one source, that care has cost him up to $150,000 a year.
And Saturday, while many of his peers, including Holmes, Norton, Gerry Cooney, Roberto Duran and Tommy Hearns, are gathering in Cancun, courtesy of Don King, to witness what passes for a heavyweight title fight these days -- ever heard of Samuel Peter or Oleg Maskaev? -- Frazier will be in his apartment, surrounded by his photographs and comforted by his memories.
"Remember The Greatest?" he asks, pointing to the photograph above his head. "There he is, on the way down."
That was Joe Frazier's moment, and 37 years later, it remains bright enough to see him through.