Sharing a Smoke with 'Smokin' Joe Frazier
Posted: Jan 29, 2009 3:48pm ET
I met one of my sports idols on Monday night—Joe Frazier, the former heavyweight champion of the world. Frazier was being honored by the Friars Club in Manhattan. I took the subway uptown, checked my coat and walked up the narrow, steep staircase to the Lucille Ball Bar. I grabbed a cocktail, and there he was, holding court in a corner table—Joe Frazier.
When I was a kid, I knew Frazier as the foil for Muhammad Ali, the man who battled him toe-to-toe in three epic boxing matches. They call Ali The Greatest, but he needed Joe Frazier to push him to the limit. Frazier was an undersized heavyweight—he stood only 5 feet 11 1/2 inches tall—but he was a determined and incredibly conditioned warrior who moved ever forward, often taking shots to the head to get in close and do his damage. He had a rhythm to his movements, bobbing and crouching, keeping that head moving away from his opponent’s punches, trying to get into range for his killer hook. Rooting for Ali, huge Muhammad Ali, the self-proclaimed best fighter ever, was like rooting for someone who was always supposed to win. Frazier had that underdog spirit—grit, determination, killer instinct and not a shred of quit inside him.
I loved watching him fight.
I had the chance to sit down with Frazier at a back table at the Friars Club for an interview before the dinner. I sat down and stared him straight in the eye. He had just turned 65 on January 12, but he still looked tough enough to go a few rounds.
“How did you get the nickname ‘Smokin’ Joe?” I asked. I didn’t know the story, but I suspected it wasn’t because he smoked cigars in his youth.
“My first trainer gave me that name,” he said, his voice all gravel, cool, relaxed. “He said, ‘I want you to go out there and make smoke come out of your gloves.” Frazier complied. “From then on,” he said, “he called me Smokin’ Joe.”
Frazier spoke about music quite a bit, seeming almost more proud of his recording history than his fighting game. He sang a bit, telling me that music played a role in the ring. “If the timing isn’t there in music, the timing won’t be there in the fight game,” he said. “[Music] has been in me ever since I was a young man, and I love it.”
It was almost time for dinner, and Frazier had to make his way to the front table. I took a La Gloria Cubana Artesanos de Miami Elegante from my breast pocket and gave it to him. The champ’s eyes lit up.
I asked him one last question: if he had a favorite fight. “Yeah, when George beat me up,” he said with a hearty laugh, speaking about the 1973 fight when he lost his title to a young George Foreman. “I couldn’t wait for the second one,” he said, speaking of the 1976 rematch. “It was almost a rerun.”
Despite those losses, he had pride in facing the much larger Foreman, who towered over Frazier. “I took my shot,” he said. “I didn’t quit.”