The boxing world mourned “Smokin’ Joe” Frazier on Monday in Philadelphia with its cataract eyes, cauliflower ears, and crushed-velvet hyperbole.
But I say it’s time we sing his praises. That’s right, sing.
A little off key, but with a lot of soul —- just the way he lived his amazing life.
In the ring, Frazier was an under-sized Everyman, straight from the Philly streets. He was a pit bull who threw punches like lit dynamite sticks. His misses were audible in the cigar-fogged arenas, and when he landed that big left hook —- boom! —- jaws cracked and rafters rattled.
But it’s when he pursued his life’s other passion, singing, and took his show on the road, that he reminded us he was more than a heavyweight champion. He showed the world he was his own man who sang, and danced, to his own beat.
Sports fans scoffed at Frazier and his backup band, The Knockouts. Joe could carry a tune in more than a spit bucket, and the band was filled with ringer musicians and singers from the Philly soul music scene. Most people, though, didn’t check out his show to see the energetic soul man. Rather, they wanted to take a gander at the heavyweight champ on stage. Few knew that Frazier was so into his music that he actually rehearsed his songs between rounds in the gym.
When he opened at Caesars Palace in March 1970, he was a newly crowned champion, following his impressive win over Jimmy Ellis. He opened with “I’ve Got a Hammer” and pounded away in a one-hour set. He admitted having opening-night jitters.
“I was a little up tight at first,” he told AP’s Terry Ryan. “It was like feeling someone out for the first two rounds. You have to find out what they want.”
But, he reassured skeptics, “Singing isn’t anything new to me. I’ve been singing as long as I’ve been boxing. I’d be here even if I wasn’t champ. Some people think singing is easier than boxing, but singing is four or five times harder.”
Joe settled in, but a few days later, he took the old pre-show, good-luck salute of “break a leg” a bit too literally.
In his first set, Joe was moving and grooving when he decided to show off and do the splits a la James Brown.
Down went Frazier —- with a broken right ankle.
True to his fierce ring persona, he regained his footing, finished the set and a later 2 a.m. show before being taken to the county hospital for an X-ray.
“I do the same thing in training,” he explained. “It’s the Frazier split. I jump up and stick my legs out. In the ring they have resin and I wear boxing shoes. This time I guess the floor was a little slippery. It was a freakish thing.”
And one that might have changed the course of his boxing career. Less than a year later, Frazier entered the ring at Madison Square Garden against Muhammad Ali. Both were undefeated. Frazier was the champion of record, but Ali was the darling of the celebrity crowd and much of the press.
Fifteen grueling rounds later, Frazier remained undefeated. Ali remained in the world spotlight while Frazier burned in the shadow. So formidable was Ali’s persona that acclaimed author Budd Schulburg penned the biography “Loser and Still Champion” about the importance of Ali’s place in the history of the heavyweight division.
No one was writing a literary paen to the street-tough soul brother named Frazier.
On Monday in Philadelphia, Ali was among the thousands assembled to say goodbye to Smokin’ Joe. Gone from liver cancer at 67.
Ali’s man Gene Kilroy, the Las Vegas casino host, was there. Kilroy says that when the minister spoke about Frazier, he reminded everyone that “it’s not how many times you get knocked down. It’s how many times you get up. And Joe Frazier got up.”
Contrary to many reports, Kilroy notes that Frazier and Ali had largely mended their differences. Frazier said he was looking forward to coming out to Las Vegas in February for Ali’s 70th birthday at the MGM Grand.
“Maybe we’ll go for the fourth time,” Frazier told Kilroy in September during a visit to Las Vegas. Then he added, “No, we had our day in the sun. Now it’s time to make love.”
Ali was known as a great prankster with the sharpest tongue in the history of the heavyweight division, but no one ever called him self-deprecating. Frazier, the dog-eared Everyman, was capable of laughing at himself.
When the Miller Brewing Co. hired him to promote Lite beer, he kept his sense of humor. In one commercial, he said he enjoyed the taste so much, “it makes me wanna sing!” Then he watched as the room cleared all around him.
Frazier’s stint at Caesars ended with a bad break, but by 1977 he was back in Las Vegas at the Hacienda headlining “The Smokin’ Joe Frazier Revue.” It didn’t last, but he wasn’t deterred.
In a life filled with triumph and defeat, nothing ever stopped Joe Frazier from singing his music, his way.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.