The city of Philadelphia is finally going to do right by one of its favorite sons — former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier.
Long before the fictional “Rocky” statue became a symbol of fighting heart in Philly, Joe Frazier defined that identity. The tough southpaw came out of the city to capture the heavyweight championship of the world, when that title meant something, and fought the greatest trilogy of fights we have ever seen against Muhammad Ali.
Frazier, who died in 2011, will be memorialized in a nine-foot-tall statue that will sit outside the Xfinity Live! retail/entertainment center in the South Philadelphia Sports Complex. The unveiling is scheduled for Saturday.
The artist commissioned by the city to create the statue, Stephen Layne, used the moment where Frazier floored Ali with a left hook in the 15th and final round of their historic “Fight of the Century” on March 8, 1971 — a fight Frazier won by decision.
Layne said that’s where he found his “inspiration” for the pose that will honor Frazier.
I’m sure Layne is a very talented sculptor, and will get the credit for the work on the Frazier statue, as well he should.
But the artist who created the pose that people will see come Saturday in Philadelphia was a small, wise former amateur boxer from Detroit who became the greatest boxing trainer the sport has ever seen.
Layne may have used the clay to create the image of Frazier. Eddie Futch created the inspiration.
Futch, who passed away in 2001 at the age of 90, trained 18 world champions during his illustrious career, from Alexis Arguello to Michael Spinks to Riddick Bowe.
He was hired by Frazier’s manager, Yank Durham, to train Frazier, and developed the strategy that led to the pose that will live forever in bronze in Philadelphia.
I was fortunate enough to spend hours interviewing Futch — not only the greatest trainer in boxing history, but the most decent man the sport has ever seen — when he trained Bowe. One of the many conversations we had was about Frazier, and how he prepared him for that historic fight against Ali — two undefeated world champions.
“Ali was a great fighter, and he was in my mind even greater than what most people thought he was, because he had limited ability and he made that work,” Futch said. “Ali hardly ever threw a body punch. He never ducked a punch. He always pulled back or away from a punch, blocked it or slipped it.
“I charted Ali’s strengths — the things he was a master at — and I also charted the things that he couldn’t do. So, I set up our strategy to avoid his strengths as much as we possibly could and to exploit his weaknesses as much as we possibly could.
“One of them was that he could not throw the right-hand upper cut properly, so we had Joe bob and weave in a more exaggerated way, just a little lower than he normally did, and stayed close so he could work the body and to watch for Ali’s right hand to drop to throw the uppercut.
“[Ali] is going to have to dig him out of that low stance with punches coming up. He would try to dig Joe out of that stance, and he would have to do it with the uppercut. He would stand up straight and didn’t bend his knees, didn’t bend his body to throw the uppercut.
“So, I told Joe, ‘The minute you see his right hand come down, you throw the left. He’s got nothing up there. You can catch them with the left.’ The only time that you hit Ali was when he is punching. When he throws the uppercut, you throw the hook. That’s the punch that hurt [Ali] so badly in the 11th round and that’s the punch that knocked him down in the 15th round.
“Ali was throwing the uppercut and Joe threw the hook. I had worked on that round after round after round, telling Joe to step in and throw that hook when he saw the right hand come down. The battle plan was carried out, to bob and weave and stay low and stay in close, stay tight and to work the body and make him bring his hands down. And then [Frazier] shifted to the head when [Ali] brought them down.”
That was great work by Futch, who trained four of the five fighters who defeated Ali, but his greatest work may be remembered in a few weeks, when the 40th anniversary of the third Ali-Frazier fight — the “Thrilla in Manila” — rolls around. It was a brutal fight that ended with Futch refusing to let Frazier come out for the 15th and final round.
Futch told me he believed that Frazier had the fight won after the 10th round. “At the end of the 10th round, Ali was ready to come out of the ring,” he said. “Angelo Dundee [Ali’s trainer] kept them in there. Ali wanted to come out, but Angelo badgered him to stay in there.
“It was in the 11th round was when the swelling began around Joe’s eyes,” Futch said. “In the 12th, it became more pronounced, and Joe was having trouble seeing out of the left eye because of the swelling.”
Two rounds later, Futch stopped the fight against Frazier’s wishes. “It was all gone then,” he said. “He wasn’t seeing the shots he was getting hit with, and it doesn’t take many of those to damage your man.
“Joe Frazier was a good father,” Futch told me. “He’s got a very lovely family, nice people. I saw how much time they spent, how much of himself he put into his family. He and his kids were very close. They were just like brothers and sisters rather than father and children. I said I just can’t see myself letting this man possibly wind up a vegetable or be injured fatally — not when he had so much to live for, so much to enjoy. That was what’s going through my mind in the 14th round.”
They may build a statue of Futch somewhere, someday. It will have to be really tall.
• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.
• Thom Loverro can be reached at email@example.com.
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