Joe Frazier’s gym is on the crumbling 2400 block in North Philadelphia. The place is filled with the sharp smells of Lysol, sweat and, right now, fear. “I’m nervous,” says a young light heavyweight about to climb into the ring with 41-year-old Frazier. “Don’t be nervous,” the ex-heavyweight champion tells him. “OK,” the kid corrects himself, “I’m scared to death. Yesterday you hit me with that left hook and messed me up bad.” Frazier smiles dreamily. “It’s still there,” he says, flexing his fabled left hand.
Frazier, who retired in ’77 but who came back for a fight (a draw) in ’81, is sparring again. And he plans to put that left hand to use in a July 7 bout against Robert Cleroux in St. Leonard, a Montreal suburb. Although he’s claimed, “It’s no comeback, it’s a one-shot,” Smokin’ Joe is already starting to bob and weave. “Maybe I would fight again,” admits Frazier, who at this point looks more like a Weight Watchers “before” poster than a serious contender. Appearance notwithstanding, fight historian Jim Jacobs predicts, “If he gets a quick knockout, he’d fight again. The heavyweight division is pathetic. Joe says to himself ‘I can beat these guys.’ ”
Haunted by the possibility of a punch-drunk Frazier, the boxing community has already issued its unanimous decision on the fight: Joe, say it ain’t so. “It’s like Fred Astaire coming back to give a dance exhibition,” says Jim Jacobs. Agrees David Wolf, manager of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini and a longtime Frazier friend: “I only hope he’s not embarrassed by his performance or by the lack of crowds. I’m afraid this will end up in the hands of boxing’s critics.”
On the surface at least, the bout contains elements of both farce and tragedy. Frazier, who says he weighs 233 pounds—about 30 above his prime—claims he’ll be down to 220 by fight time. And if Joe is a has-been, his opponent is a never-was. Cleroux, 47, was the Canadian heavyweight champion—a bit like being Albania’s hottest couturier—in ’60 and ’61. “I’ve always wondered who’s the better boxer,” says Cleroux, who now works as a maître d’ in a Montreal restaurant, and whose journeyman’s 49-5-1 record against modest opposition should tell him all he needs to know. The match, consisting of eight two-minute rounds, is billed as a “benefit” for sickle-cell anemia. For his efforts, Frazier will net about $130,000 and Cleroux $105,000.
Some might assume that Frazier is fighting again—like so many over-the-hill champions—because he’s broke. After all, Joe’s been quoted as saying: “I have to fight. I already spent my advance.” (That’s 50 percent of the purse.) But write no financial requiems for this heavyweight: The limousine business he runs out of his gym is thriving. He owns a 17-room house in the fine Philadelphia suburb of Lafayette Hills. (Florence, his wife of 25 years, lives there. Joe has a two-bedroom apartment in town. The two are in the process of getting a divorce.) The former sharecropper’s son is also master of a 365-acre plantation in his native Beaufort County, S.C. Over the years he won millions of dollars in and out of the ring, and his investments are solid. So money alone isn’t what’s drawn him back to the ring. “It’s tied up with something else,” suggests Pete Dexter, the astute Philadelphia Daily News columnist and student of the boxing scene. “He’s never gotten over being old and not being a fighter.”
Lying on the couch of his second-floor office, Frazier rubs his ample belly and scoffs at the notion. “If my life got any better I couldn’t handle it,” he says. “Fighting is what I know, what I love. This ain’t really no comeback, ’cause I never left the ring.”
Surely he never went far. Since retiring Frazier has devoted himself to managing and training what he calls “boxing’s royal family”: his sons Marvis, 25, and Joe Jr., 23, nephews Rodney and Mark, as well as adopted son Murray Frazier and protégé Bert Cooper.
Frazier has an almost Faulknerian reverence for kin, and when the Montreal fight was first offered, he ran it by his ring family. “Your job is to train us, not to fight,” Marvis objected at first. He relented when he realized that “Cleroux is even older than Pop. And the fight’s an exhibition.” “It’s a fight,” corrects his old man, who once knocked an unwary deejay out of an exhibition ring and into the hospital. “That’s the warrior in him,” grins Marvis.
As a warrior, Marvis is not quite in his father’s exalted class. He’s more a spear-carrier with a 14-1 record, whose first loss came last year in a first-round TKO by heavyweight champ Larry Holmes. Although some felt Joe should never have put his less-experienced son in with Holmes, Marvis did come away $800,000 richer. A bible-quoting deacon in a Baptist church, Marvis remains confident. “The Lord will make me heavyweight champion of the world,” he says.
If Marvis hasn’t yet filled his father’s hightops as a fighter, Joe also has had trouble living up to his own past success. As a trainer, reviews have been decidedly mixed. “I know of no ‘diamonds’ in his gym,” says Jacobs. This despite the fact that Frazier has instilled his grueling work ethic in his “boys.” He’s up at 4 a.m. to run with them, then he spars with them. Hard work was what made Frazier. Indeed some feel Joe is the real-life prototype of Rocky, Philadelphia’s fictional working-class hero. At age 18, Joe left Beaufort for Philadelphia and a $105 a week job in a slaughterhouse (whence Sly Stallone borrowed the idea of using a side of beef as a heavy bag). As for the once egotistical and hopelessly self-smitten foe Apollo Creed, look no further than Joe’s own nemesis—Muhammad Ali. “Rocky’s a great movie because Stallone took it from a great story,” says Frazier. “Me and Ali.”
In the ring, Smokin’ Joe Frazier’s style was Pattonesque: Always attack, never back off. He was willing to absorb two or three shots to deliver one of his own crushing blows. “Joe’s left hook was almost mystical,” says David Wolf. “It was like getting hit with a baseball bat over and over and over again. It was his money punch.”
This afternoon, in his North Broad Street gym, the money punch is what Frazier is working on. Although he may have caught the young light heavyweight with it yesterday—and even hurt him—today the kid is one day smarter and stronger, while Joe is one day older and slower. One day closer to smokelessness. Mostly the big hook goes whistling by the kid’s ear. Joe shakes him a couple of times but by the end of three rounds the kid has barely broken a sweat; Frazier is huffing and puffing. “Ring rust,” mutters Joe’s nephew Rodney. “My uncle’s had a long layoff.”