October 1, 1975. Phillippine Islands. The Thrilla in Manila – a world-title match considered by most boxing aficionados to rank among the most brutal in heavyweight history. In one corner, Muhammad Ali, the self-proclaimed greatest of all-time. In the other, Smokin’ Joe Frazier, a brooding arch-nemesis who absolutely refused to stand down regardless of how tight or often Ali insisted on putting the screws to him.
By October of ’75, Ali and Frazier had split the first two fights between them, a pair of unanimous decisions that somehow managed to live up to the pre-game hype and then some. Despite the unprecedented build-up (and payoff) surrounding both of those contests, it would be this fight – this battle to the near-death on the southern outskirts of Quezon City – that would tether the legends of both men inextricably from that point forward.
Most on-hand accounts put the in-ring temperature that morning somewhere between 110 and 120 degrees. By the end of the 14th round, Joe Frazier had gone blind in both eyes, and he was spitting pure blood and guts into the belly of a bucket. Ali, on the other hand, was sitting slumped over on the point of near-collapse in his corner, pleading with (his trainer) Angelo Dundee to simply cut the gloves and end it.
The only thing that prevented Dundee from doing so was the fact that Joe Frazier’s cornerman quite literally got there first.
In the end, Muhammad Ali got the better of Joe Frazier both inside and outside of the ring.
But Ali would never be the same fighter again.
And, unfortunately, neither would Joe Frazier.
The supreme irony, looking back: Of the two men who entered the ring that torrid morning in Manila, Joe Frazier was the only one who was actually willing to answer the final bell. In fact, it would be several years before Joe Frazier actually found it in his heart to forgive Eddie Futch for throwing in the towel.
What it all circles back to is the notion that the greatest rivalry in boxing history really boiled down to little more than a few lingering seconds … a few lingering seconds that signaled the difference between calling one man’s bluff and folding your own hand … a few lingering seconds that may very well have reversed the fortunes of both fighters forever.
Had Joe Frazier won that third and final fight, he would’ve reclaimed the world heavyweight title a second time, having exorcised the larger-than-life specter that was Muhammad Ali in the process. Ali, meanwhile, would’ve been made to eat crow, admitting Joe Frazier had whooped him but good when it finally came time to put pure mettle where his mouth was.
Of course, none of this is really news … not even by a long shot.
The Ali-Frazier saga has been deconstructed and reconsidered from a thousand different angles or more, by much more qualified men than I. What hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention over the past 40 years is the match Ali took part in only seven months prior to facing Joe Frazier in Manila – a smash-and-grab payday pitting the greatest of all-time against an eighth-ranked contender from Bayonne, New Jersey by the name of Chuck Wepner.
Chuck Wepner entered the ring a million-to-one underdog.
Chuck Wepner came within a few lingering seconds of going the distance with the greatest heavyweight boxer of all-time.
Chuck Wepner wound up providing the subsequent inspiration for a fictional character named Rocky Balboa.
Well … Chuck Wepner, Rocky Marciano, and Joe Frazier, that is.
While Balboa’s brutish look and style were clearly reminiscent of both Wepner and Marciano, just about everything else regarding Rocky Balboa – with the obvious exception of his skin color – was reminiscent of Joe Frazier.
Blind in one eye for the bulk of his professional career? Smokin’ Joe Frazier.
Hard-luck pug who came up poor on the mean streets of Philadelphia? Smokin’ Joe Frazier.
Pounding raw meat in a slaughterhouse down by the docks? Smokin’ Joe Frazier.
Running up the Art Museum steps as part of his training regimen? Smokin’ Joe Frazier.
The simple truth is, had it not been for Joe Frazier, there probably wouldn’t have even been an Ali-Wepner in the first place. Wepner was originally slated to fight big George Foreman … that is until Foreman dropped the belt to Ali in Zaire. It was at that point that Ali’s handlers went scrambling for a six-month layover bout to replenish the coffers, secure the title, and satisfy all of Ali’s contractual obligations as champ … all prior to him tangling with Joe Frazier in Manila.
When Ali re-emerged after being stripped of his title back in 1967, it was Joe Frazier who lent him the money to get back on his feet. When Ali was denied a boxing license by a commission full of pissed-off white dudes who considered him a draft dodger, it was Joe Frazier who stepped in and pled Ali’s case to both the Supreme Court and the White House. When Ali needed a marquee fight to put his name back on the map, it was Joe Frazier who accepted the challenge without flinching, ensuring Muhammad Ali would be given a fair and equal chance to reclaim his crown.
What did Joe Frazier earn in return for all his lobbying on Ali’s behalf?
Well, now, let’s see … While there’s no doubt Joe Frazier did enjoy a certain level of prestige as a result of his association with Ali, Ali was also responsible for perpetuating the notion Joe Frazier was nothing more than an ignorant Uncle Tom; an ugly, pug-nosed gorilla who turned traitor to his own race – all unnecessary characterizations which eventually resulted in Joe’s kids getting beaten up at school, and his wife receiving bomb threats at home.
Despite the undue backlash Joe’s family suffered at the hands of local black folk, Frazier remained in the same North Philadelphia neighborhood for the rest of his career, continuing to train young talent and provide a worthwhile distraction from the streets until he was well into his 60s.
Joe Frazier referred to the long-time residents of that North Philadelphia neighborhood as his people and his home.
Joe Frazier’s people never forgot him for that.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the fighting city of Philadelphia, which has yet to commission any type of landmark memorial to the towering legacy of Joe Frazier and its indelible impact on the grand boxing tradition of that region (There are preliminary plans to erect a statue of Joe down by the Wells Fargo Center, but no official statement confirming those plans has been released).
As if to add insult to injury, the building on North Broad where Frazier’s namesake gym once stood is now in danger of being sold off to developers, who will more than likely demolish or refurbish the site, replacing it with a tiny plaque commemorating Frazier along the outside wall of some second-rate convenience store or apartment complex, all in a very conscious effort to increase monthly rental values.
A few weeks back, The National Trust for Historic Preservation added Frazier’s Gym to its short list of endangered sites. Despite that, there really doesn’t seem to be much hope for reprieve at this point. Reason being, very few tourists would ever be willing to visit a dead boxer’s gym … especially one that’s tucked deep inside a war-torn section of North Philadelphia not-so-affectionately known as the Badlands.
When all is said and done, the city proper will more than likely pursue a compromise, via which it agrees to erect some type of monument to Joe Frazier in a high-traffic area downtown. In return, the tree-hugging preservationists will be ordered to stand clear of the wrecking ball, as it reduces the one thing Joe Frazier held most dear in life to a smoldering pile of spare dust and rubble.
Yep, that’s the way it’ll go, alright. Why? I’ll tell you why. Because people are assholes, by and large. And most politicians consider Joe Frazier little more than a business proposition at this point … a business proposition that isn’t nearly as marketable as any high-six-figure tribute to Rocky Balboa ever was, is, or could be.
And that sucks, quite frankly.
I mean, don’t get me wrong. I love me some Rocky Balboa … love love love me some Rocky Balboa. But the same way I cannot see myself getting behind a grassroots campaign to erect a statue of Tom Hanks in the center of Chippewa Square, I can no longer abide the notion that Rocky Balboa means more to the City of Brotherly Love than the real-life man who embodied just about every worthwhile element of that character’s persona.
In fact, I think it may be time to forget about the Rocky statue altogether. Leave it where it is, for Pete’s sake. It’s a magnet for tourism, and it really isn’t hurting anybody, so who cares?
The real battle here – the battle that is still very much worth fighting – is the battle to save Joe Frazier’s Gym and transform it into a historic landmark.
Wepner got his millions. Balboa got his statue. Ali got just about everything else.
Why not afford Joe Frazier the luxury of remaining in the North Philadelphia neighborhood he came to call his own? Why not build an honest tribute to Frazier’s legacy there, where it would’ve meant the most to him? Why not honor this humble, heartfelt man in much the same way he honored this city and its traditions his entire adult life?
Why not give the wayward youth of North Philadelphia a worthwhile ideal to aspire to?
That seems to be the only question.