With his silk shirt, black Panama hat and slow shuffle, he easily could be mistaken for one of thousands of tourists who visit the Forum Shops at Caesars.
But the eyes give Joe Frazier away. They still sparkle in their piercing, intimidating way.
Make no mistake, Frazier is no ordinary Joe.
At age 64, time has been good as well as cruel to the boxing legend, whose three-fight trilogy and bitter rivalry with Muhammad Ali in the 1970s is among the sport’s greatest moments. Frazier still speaks well, but he hasn’t moved well since a 2002 auto accident outside of his North Philadelphia gym left him with a split spine. He has had six surgeries on his back, including an eight-hour operation in mid-February to fuse the spine.
“I think I’ve been to the (Pearly) Gate but they said, ‘We’re not ready for you yet,’ so they sent me back,” Frazier said of surviving the crash. “I feel pretty fair right now.”
If Frazier is in any way bitter, he does a great job of disguising it. Bring up Ali’s name and he even smiles.
“I’ve made my peace with him,” Frazier said of his longtime archrival. “I thought we made each other.”
When asked what he would say to Ali if he saw him today, Frazier got out of his chair and adopted his fighter’s stance.
“Let’s go one more time,” he said with a laugh.
As Frazier spoke and signed autographs at the Field of Dreams memorabilia store inside the Forum Shops on Friday, another sports legend, Pete Rose, stopped by to say hello and offer Frazier some baked treats.
“He’s ‘The Greatest Jr.,’ ” Rose said of Frazier. “Ali’s the Greatest, and Joe’s the Greatest Jr.”
As Frazier picked at a blueberry muffin, he admitted he doesn’t watch a lot of boxing these days, even though he still works with fighters at his gym.
“It’s not the same today,” he said. “These guys don’t have the right trainer. They don’t have the right leadership. There’s no one out there that impresses me.”
Frazier learned to fight in the late 1950s. Many forget he won the gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in the heavyweight division. By the time he and Ali met at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971, he was 27-0 and the reigning WBC and WBA heavyweight champion.
“I had developed the left hook, and it was so effective because you couldn’t see it coming,” Frazier said. “I didn’t have to aim it. It was on target all the time. Once I touched you once or twice, you were in trouble.”
Frazier used that left hook effectively to win a 15-round decision from Ali in what was billed as “The Fight of the Century.”
On Jan. 28, 1974, the two fought again at the Garden. This time, Ali won a 12-round unanimous decision for the NABF heavyweight title. Frazier said he would have won that fight too had referee Tony Perez not allowed Ali to hold throughout.
Their rubber match on Oct. 1, 1975, in the Philippines was the most memorable of the trilogy. Slugging it out in the heat and humidity, Frazier continually rocked Ali with bombs only to see Ali hold up under the assault.
“I was hitting him with sledgehammers,” Frazier said, his eyes lighting up as he told the story. “I hit him with shots that would knock down buildings. To this day, I don’t know how he managed to stay up.”
But Frazier took a tremendous amount of punishment in return. Ali jabbed and jabbed, carving Frazier up. Before the 15th and final round, Eddie Futch, who was Frazier’s trainer, had seen enough and had the fight stopped.
Frazier fought only twice more after the “Thrilla in Manila.” In 1976, he was unable to avenge his 1973 loss to George Foreman. His last ring appearance, which came in 1981 against Floyd “Jumbo” Cummings, ended in a majority draw. It was the only draw in Frazier’s Hall of Fame career that saw him go 32-4-1 with 27 knockouts.
“I always made sure I was ready every time I fought,” he said. “There’s only one way to do things, and that’s the right way. I never took any shortcuts.”
It’s that blue-collar approach that still endears him to fans 27 years after he last laced up his gloves. Financially, Frazier said he’s comfortable even though he made bad business deals during his heyday which ultimately cost him tens of millions of dollars. He picks up additional money making public appearances such as the ones at Field of Dreams.
Les Wolff, his business manager, said he is not surprised that Frazier remains so popular in 2008.
“He’s an iconic sports figure,” Wolff said. “He loves his fans. His reputation is impeccable, and the respect people have for him makes him popular. He’s very sensitive to who he is and what he represents.”
Frazier, who seemed to genuinely enjoy the interaction with the fans, said he has no complaints.
“When I look back on what I did, I’m very proud,” Frazier said. “I came from animosity, bigotry and hatred. God’s been good to me. I’ve got good family and good friends. Without boxing, where would I have been?”
Contact reporter Steve Carp at email@example.com or 702-387-2913.