Ali still haunting Smokin' Joe


Ali still haunting Smokin' Joe


Vincent M. Mallozzi
Oct. 19, 2006 12:00 AM


PHILADELPHIA - In a cluttered gymnasium on North Broad Street, the stench of a lifetime of hard work hung over the tools of a trade that once made Joe Frazier a heavyweight champion and a wealthy celebrity.

On a quiet, sunny afternoon in this city he adopted, Frazier stayed well beyond the reach of the natural spotlight that beamed through the front window of Joe Frazier's Gym and swept across an old boxing ring and rows of rusty lockers.

In a back room beneath a dim bulb, Frazier sat on a sofa and taped his 62-year-old hands for a light workout.

"A sound body keeps a sound mind," he said.

Then the man known as Smokin' Joe Frazier, who once formed half of one of the greatest rivalries in sports, rose slowly to his feet. Still feeling unstoppable, he began to shadow box.

"Don't seem like I'm getting any older," he said. "I weigh about 212 pounds, only 10 pounds heavier than I was in my prime."

Ten pounds heavier, but millions of dollars lighter, according to Frazier and the marketing people who work with him. Over the years, Frazier has lost a fortune through a combination of his own generosity and naivete, his carousing, failed business opportunities and a deep hatred for his former chief boxing rival, Muhammad Ali. The other headliners from his fighting days - Ali, George Foreman and Larry Holmes - are millionaires.

Frazier lives alone in an apartment one staircase above the gym where he and others train young fighters in a run-down part of town.

"This is my primary residence," he said. "Don't matter much. I'm on the road most of the time, anyway."

Asked about his situation, Frazier became playfully defensive but would not reveal his financial status.

"Are you asking me how much money I have?" he said. "I got plenty of money. I got a stack of $100 bills rolled up over there in the back of the room."

Frazier blamed himself, partly, for not effectively promoting his own image.

"I don't think I handled it right, because I certainly could have gone out more and done better for myself over the years," he said. "I could have left the gym a little more to be on the road."

Frazier was born in 1944 in South Carolina, the youngest of 12 children. His parents worked in the fields, and he dropped out of school at 13.

He made Philadelphia his boxing home, turned professional in August 1965 and won his first 11 bouts by knockouts. He was generously listed at 5 feet 11 1/2 inches when he retained his heavyweight title by defeating Ali in a 15-round decision at Madison Square Garden in March 1971. He compiled a career record of 32-4-1.

These days, Frazier is not completely healthy. While driving on the busy street in front of his gym three years ago, he said, his car experienced a mechanical problem and collided with another car. The Philadelphia police said it had no record of the accident. But Frazier has since had four operations on his back and neck, the most recent three months ago.

A person who was briefed on the accident and said he would speak only on the condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing his relationship with Frazier said that Holmes helped pay for the operations. Holmes, now a businessman in his hometown of Easton, Pa., answered cautiously when asked if he had done so.

"Joe Frazier is my friend, and what I choose to do for my friends is my own business," he said. "If I do anything for a friend, it is not done for the purpose of making myself look good and getting my name in the paper. But know this about my friendship with Joe: If I had $4 left in my wallet, two of those would go to Joe."

Corporate sponsors have not always felt the same way about Frazier.

Darren Prince, Frazier's marketing manager since 1995, said Frazier remained beloved by fans. But he also said that Frazier's animosity toward Ali had hurt him financially.

Frazier's frequent insistence that he won all three of his fights against Ali also did not endear him to potential sponsors, Prince said.

When told of Prince's remarks, Frazier said, "I am who I am, and yes, I whipped Ali all three times."

In fact, Frazier lost two of the three fights, including the Thrilla in Manila bout in 1975.

On Nov. 30, Frazier will box Willie W. Herenton, the 66-year-old mayor of Memphis, in a three-round charity bout at the Peabody Memphis Hotel. Herenton is a former amateur boxing champion.

"He must have a death wish," Frazier said.

So Frazier headed toward the ring to resume training. But before leaving the dimly lit room, he stopped to glance at a giant poster that was made from a 1971 cover of Life magazine. It showed him and Ali, side by side and clad in tuxedos, beneath the words "Fight of the Century," a reference to the first of their three clashes, the one that Frazier won at the Garden. Each fighter made $2.5 million that night.

"Ali always said I would be nothing without him," Frazier said. "But who would he have been without me?"
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