11.08.11

The Smokin' Joe I Know

Boxer Joe Frazier, who passed Monday, may be known for battling Ali, but Charles Leerhsen, who profiled him in Newsweek in ’81, writes that the heavyweight champ was thoughtful and sweet.

As every sportswriter knows, boxers make the best subjects. There are two reasons for this. One is that boxing is not a team sport, so the participants are rarely interviewed in the proximity of their peers, who tend by their sullen presence to enforce that section of the jock code that says blandness in speech is preferable to saying something uncoolly colorful. Apart from that, a man who fights for a living has probably had his self-editing machinery jarred loose by the time the press arrives to paint his portrait, which also helps with the quotes.

I worked for Newsweek for 11 years, starting in 1981, and my favorite story was practically my first. It was a profile of Joe Frazier, executed on the occasion of his attempted comeback, at age 37. The magazine sent its child reporter down to North Philadelphia, where the former heavyweight champ kept his gym. I still remember finding him in his office, near a free-standing life-size cutout photo of his knockdown of Muhammad Ali, and how he greeted me with a raspy, “Hi, Mel!” Because my name is Charlie, this threw me for a moment, like an opponent who suddenly goes southpaw on you, so you can’t counter his jab. But after an hour or so I wearied of correcting him and after three days I stopped worrying that someone named Mel was going to show up and expose me as a fraud. I liked being Mel and him being “Champ.” Indeed, Frazier, who died yesterday at age 67 of liver cancer, was the sweetest and most thoughtful athlete I have ever met.

Once Smokin’ Joe had been one of the most famous men on the planet. He’d had a phenomenal rise in the late ‘60s, and then two epic and one not-so-epic fights with Ali, going 1-2 but never losing his dignity despite the Greatest’s calling him a gorilla and an Uncle Tom to goose the gate. But in the interim since the Thrilla in Manila, the quality of his opponents had, ahem, diminished. In ’81 Frazier was set to fight a convicted murderer named Jumbo Cummings. And Joe’s entourage was down to two people, both his sons. I hung around the gym that afternoon, and he invited me to join him the next morning on a trip to New York. He said he’d pick me up at my motel at 8 and we’d spend all day in the city and go to a Leroy Neiman exhibit opening that evening. But at 5 a.m. the phone rang and a familiar voice said, “Mel?” It turned out the Champ had been mistaken about the date of the Manhattan trip—it had actually happened a week before, and he had gone, but forgotten about it. It was an awkward moment, but I can’t imagine another world-class athlete calling a young, unknown writer to advise of a change of plans.

He never talked about his condition directly, but at one point he abruptly said, “People can seem dumb when they really aren’t.”

Even then, Frazier suffered from punch-drunk syndrome. It affected his voice, his walk, and of course his thinking. Before answering a question, he’d often say, “Ah, well, let me say this about that,” by which time he may have pulled together his thoughts. The fog in his brain must have been annoying at the least, but once he got rolling he was more or less OK. He never talked about his condition directly, but at one point he abruptly said, “People can seem dumb when they really aren’t.” Then he told me a story about his father, Rubin, who’d been a sharecropper in South Carolina and who’d lost an arm in a tractor accident. “The people where I come from were so … I don’t know what you’d call it, country? ... that when my mother was in labor with me a crowd gathered ‘round the house to see if I’d be born with one arm, too.”

The last night that I was with him we had dinner at a place in or near Philadelphia called, I think, Smokin’ Joe’s. He didn’t have an ownership stake, but he got free meals and maybe a few bucks for his name and image on the sign. Joe’s theme that evening was that as a fighter he’d gotten better with age. He allowed that he may have lost a little foot speed, but that the boxing knowledge he’d gained more than made up for that. Then as the meal was winding down he turned to me and said, “Mel, did I have dessert?” I hated to break the news. “Yes, Champ, I believe you did,” I said, pointing to a pie crust on his plate. “Damn,” he said softly.

When leaving, we ran into a group of business travelers, a woman and two men, who couldn’t start their rented car. Joe lifted the hood and tinkered with it—for these startled people it was like seeing Popeye come out of, well …Popeye’s—and when he couldn’t fix it either, he cheerfully drove them back to their hotel in his 1976 Cadillac. In a perfect world, perhaps, he would not have just as cheerfully discussed his theory about the aphrodisiacal qualities of big-ass automobiles and told the unsettling story of what had happened on the back seat, where his new friends were sitting, the previous evening. But then it is the imperfect moments that have always defined Joe Frazier, and which make him, to some people anyway, every bit as memorable as his less life-size foil.