June 26, 2019
Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali at Madison Square Garden, March 8, 1971 (AP)
Hundreds of books have been written about Muhammad Ali. As Ali biographer Wilfrid Sheed noted, "He's one of those madonnas you want to paint at least once in your life." But surprisingly few books - and fewer good ones - have been written about the men who, with Ali, defined "the golden age of heavyweight boxing." Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Larry Holmes lent their names to autobiographies. But none of these efforts did justice to their subject.
"Smokin' Joe: The Life of Joe Frazier" by Mark Kram Jr. (published by HarperCollins) does justice to its subject.
Frazier won a gold medal at the 1964 Olympics and engaged in memorable heavyweight championship fights against Jimmy Ellis and George Foreman. But he's best remembered for three fights against Muhammad Ali, historic encounters that are the pyramids of boxing.
At his best, Frazier fought with unrelenting savage fury. "His way was the hard way," Kram writes. "In the ring, he lived and died by the simple yet daring principle of engagement that, in order to deliver one bone-crunching blow, it was frequently necessary to absorb three in exchange. No one would ever have cause to question his heart or his courage under fire."
After fighting Frazier, George Chuvalo declared, "He fights six minutes of every round."
Frazier was born in Beaufort County in South Carolina on Jan. 12, 1944. His parents, Rubin and Dolly Frazier, had 11 children (eight boys and three girls).
A lot has been written about growing up in the midst of ignorance, poverty and disease in the poorest parts of rural America. Kram's treatment of the subject is well-researched and evocatively written. He writes about Frazier's early years in a way that brings "Billy Boy" (as Frazier was known then) and his surroundings to life.
It was a world where, in Kram's words, "Fifty percent of African American males [in Beaufort County] suffered from syphilis which rendered them ineligible for service in World War II. Whatever contrived harmony existed between the races hinged on the adherence by blacks to a wide range of humiliating inequities."
Frazier dropped out of school at an early age. His rural South Carolina vernacular left many with the false impression that he was "slow of mind" - an image that Ali later cruelly propagated. He took a bus north to New York where he stole cars and sold them to a junkyard no-questions-asked to make ends meet. Then he moved to Philadelphia, found work in a slaughterhouse, and took up boxing under the watchful eye of Yank Durham.
Frazier was short for a heavyweight and had a limited reach. But as Kram notes, "Beyond the raw power he spotted in Frazier, Durham ascertained that there was a big engine inside him. To counterbalance Joe's physical shortcomings, he was of the belief that Frazier only had one way to go and that was straight ahead into the chest of his opponent."
That was how Frazier fought.
Kram explores the Philadelphia gym culture and the ring wars that came with it. He chronicles Frazier's pro career from his first fight through the sad coda at the end of his fighting days, an undeserved draw against Floyd "Jumbo" Cummings. He details how, for much of his career, Frazier fought with eye damage that severely limited his vision ("I'd rather be rich and blind than poor and blind," he said).
Frazier, of course, will be remembered forever in tandem with Ali and measured forever against him.
Muhammad Ali, who proclaimed, "I outshine the sun."
"The rivalry between Frazier and Ali," Kram writes, "was a cultural happening that exposed the deep fissures in American society. By an accident of circumstances, they ended up in the crosshairs of an argument far larger than themselves."
In this rivalry, Kram notes, Frazier "came face to face with black-on-black hate language in his exchanges with Ali. Whatever heights of athletic achievement they drove each other to inside the ring, they dragged each other down in a running feud outside of it."
Kram deftly chronicles the burgeoning war of words between Frazier and Ali; a war that verged on violence between the two men on several occasions during Ali's exile from boxing. As the book evolves, all three Ali-Frazier fights are well told.
In the dressing room before Ali-Frazier I, Durham told Frazier, "Win tonight and the road will be paved in gold."
Frazier won. But even then, his dreams weren't fully realized. Ali had turned a substantial portion of the black community against him. The now-undisputed heavyweight champion of the world wasn't able to fully enjoy his reign. He never received the respect he should have as a fighter or a man.
"Smokin' Joe" covers a wide range of subjects from the formation of Cloverlay (the Philadelphia syndicate that financially backed Frazier) to Frazier's unfortunate relationship with Frank Rizzo (the Philadelphia cop who was elected mayor on a platform of not-so-subtle racism aimed at the black community).
It's infused with anecdotal material such as Frazier's effort to launch a singing career (his most notable moment as a singer came in 1970 when he slipped onstage while performing and broke his ankle).
One theme explored in depth is Frazier's profligate womanizing.
Frazier had four children by two different women (Florence Smith and Rosetta Green) before his 19th birthday. He and Florence married on June 25, 1963, while she was pregnant with their third child. They were so poor that Frazier borrowed his sister Mazie's wedding ring to use in the ceremony.
Kram describes Frazier as being "restless at home." That's an understatement. Over the years, he fathered 11 children (six sons and five daughters) by six different women. Florence was the mother of five of the children. In addition to Green, four other women - Joan Mahoney, Sharon Hatch, Janice Cotton and Sheri Gibson - carried a child of Frazier's to term.
"Frazier let the good times roll when it came to women," Kram writes. "He was prolific in his sexual adventures. Although he loved his children and took seriously his obligation to see to their welfare, he felt hemmed in by the sameness of domestic life. Occasionally, as the four walls began closing in on him, he would engage in quarrels at home late at night as a pretext to storm out of the house in search of action. He looked upon his dalliances as a prerogative due him once the [household] bills were paid."
Some of Frazier's children were raised in comfort. Others grew up in inner-city public housing. But he loved all of them. At one point, he took his 1964 Olympic gold medal to a jeweler with instructions to carve it into charms, one for each child.
In 1985, Joe and Florence began litigating a divorce. The proceeding (like a Dickensian tale out of "Bleak House") took 12 years to resolve.
Kram also gives a detailed account of Frazier's long (1968 through 2011) relationship with Denise Menz, the most consistent of his extra-marital lovers. Over the years, Menz became, in Kram's words, Frazier's "confidante, lover, business partner, and, occasionally, indentured servant. Wherever Joe appeared, it seemed that she was never far away. Charged by Frazier with running his office, she kept the books, lined up caterers, helped him choose his wardrobe, decorated the gym and the upstairs living quarters, and even did loads of laundry."
Menz (who was one of Kram's sources in writing "Smokin' Joe") said of her lover, "He would kneel at his bedside and say his prayers the way a small child would. He believed in all of the Ten Commandments except the ones dealing with adultery. He told me, 'The Lord don't care about that.'"
Menz also acknowledged what Kram calls "episodes of turbulence" between Frazier and herself with the emergence of other women in Frazier's later years. "It was the only thing we ever fought about," Menz said. "I knew I was the other woman but not that there were other women."
Frazier and Menz (who is white) also had to deal with the societal pressures of being in an interracial relationship.
"Given how society frowned upon interracial affairs in the 1960s," Kram states, "it would not have gone well for Joe if it became common knowledge that he was engaged in one. Beyond the certain havoc that it would have caused at home, it surely would have hurt his efforts to build a commercial brand."
The decades after Frazier retired as an active fighter are also well-told in "Smokin' Joe." He had always been a drinker. But he drank a lot more than he had before after his days in the ring came to an end.
Eventually, Frazier tried his hand at training fighters. In the late-1970s and 1980s, he worked with his oldest child, Marvis, who'd been born in 1960 when Joe and Florence were 16. Marvis was taller and a much lighter puncher than his famous father. He also had a not-particularly-good chin. Referencing Joe's deficiencies as a trainer, Kram observes, "When it came to passing down his know-how, he only knew the way he had done it. He was not adaptable to fighters' individual skill sets. When he worked with young fighters, it was as if he saw within them the potential to re-create himself."
Commenting on Frazier's my-way-or-the-highway approach to training, Eddie Futch declared, "You'll never be able to convince Joe that he was wrong. Anyone who disagrees with him on anything becomes the enemy."
Marvis won 19 fights as a pro but suffered brutal knockout defeats when overmatched against Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson.
One of Frazier's children is now an attorney. Another died in prison. Nine of Joe's 11 children are alive today. Kram interviewed four of them. Joseph Jordan Frazier (born to Sharon Hatch in the early 1980s) shared the thought, "My father loved the only way he knew how."
Late in life, his money gone, Frazier suffered from diabetes and hypertension. He underwent surgery for neck, back and shoulder problems. While mowing the lawn, he accidentally cut off one of his toes. Worse, he developed cognitive issues of his own, presumably from the many blows to the head he took in boxing. The final blow was liver cancer. He died on Nov. 7, 2011.
There are some nagging factual errors in "Smokin' Joe." For example, Kram writes that Ali was allowed to fight Oscar Bonavena at Madison Square Garden (with Ali-Frazier I on the horizon) because "New York had relented and given him a license on the heels of his comeback in Atlanta." But New York didn't "relent." A federal judge ruled that the New York State Athletic Commission had violated Ali's constitutional rights and ordered the commission to give him a license.
There's also a questionable interpretation of events in the book's final three pages when Kram recounts what some say was a reconciliation that took place at a private dinner between Frazier and Ali during NBA All-Star weekend in 2002. The dinner did happen. And as recounted by Kram, some kind words were spoken. But in truth, Frazier never let go of the bitterness and anger that he felt toward Ali.
Kram acknowledges as much when he begins his book by stating in the prologue, "As the years unfolded and Ali grew infirm, as his speech became slurred and his hands increasingly quivered, Frazier appeared to take cruel pleasure in the adversity that had befallen 'Clay.' 'Look at him, and now look at me.' he told me [Kram] and others. 'Who do you think came out the winner?' He had convinced himself that his signature was embossed on the physical wreck Ali had become. Even as friends reminded him that Ali was a sick man and implored him to back off, Frazier could not help himself from battering his erstwhile rival with verbal haymakers."
Near the end of "Smokin' Joe," hedging on this acknowledgment, Kram writes, "People who knew him for years told me they were sure that Frazier carried his animus for Ali to the grave, that he had been wounded so deeply that he could never let it go. But others were certain that he had come to peace with Ali, particularly those who knew him from his boyhood days in South Carolina. Nearly all told me some variation of 'Billy never hated a soul in his life.'"
But those who knew Frazier "from his boyhood days in South Carolina" were wrong. It's beyond question that, at times in his life, Frazier did hate Ali. Thus, Kram would have done better to end "Smokin' Joe" with his own eloquently worded observation: "Any conclusion either way is perhaps clouded by your own thoughts of how forgiving you would be in the same circumstances. Perhaps some of it also has to do with your own belief in the power of reconciliation, how you define 'unforgivable,' and the enchantment of happy endings."
Thomas Hauser's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book - Protect Yourself at All Times - was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.