- - Monday, June 24, 2019


By Mark Kram Jr.

Ecco/HarperColins, $27.99, 320 pages

Thousands of tourists flock to Philadelphia for the historic sites and other attractions, and many of them venture to the Philadelphia Art Museum’s steps, where actor Sylvester Stone ran up them famously as the fictional boxer in the 1976 film “Rocky.”

The tourists have their photo taken along side the statute of Rocky, a prop from one of the “Rocky” sequels, which stands near the bottom of the museum steps. But there is another statute of a true fighter, the late Joe Frazier, in South Philadelphia near the sports arenas.

I met Joe Frazier briefly in the late 1970s at his Cloverlay boxing gym in North Philadelphia. There were more far more fans than fighters in the gym that day, but Joe Frazier was affable and approachable. As an amateur boxer and fight fan, I was impressed with Joe Frazier. His career was admirable, and his three fights with Muhammad Ali were the stuff of boxing legend.

Unfortunately, Muhammad Ali’s showboat antics and flamboyant boxing style overshadowed Joe Frazier. Sadly, Muhammad Ali belittled Joe Frazier in public for years, calling him a gorilla, an Uncle Tom and other insults. The public barrage angered and saddened Joe Frazer deeply.

It would not be until after his death in November 2011 that a 12-foot, 1,800-pound bronze statue of him was erected at the sports arenas. The statute shows Joe Frazier delivering the left hook that floored Muhammad Ali in the 1971 bout that many call the “Fight of the Century.”

And now Joe Frazier appears to be getting his further due with a full biography. “Smokin Joe: The Life of Joe Frazier” by Mark Kram Jr. covers the great boxer’s life from his poor beginnings in South Carolina to his ascension to the championship of the world.

Former Philadelphia Daily News reporter Mark Kram Jr. opens the book with his recollection of a visit to the former boxer’s high-rise apartment on the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia.

“By virtue of a reportorial acquaintance with Joe that dated back to my father. Mark Kram, who covered him for Sports Illustrated from the early days of his career, I stopped in to see him one day in June 2009 for a piece I was thinking of doing for an overseas magazine,” Mr. Kram writes. “At sixty-five, his handshake was still firm, scarcely the grip of a man rumored to be in declining health. Word was he was battling diabetes and high blood pressure, and that he still had not recovered from a car crash in 2002. Even so, he appeared full of cheerful contentment, far removed from the enduring portrayal of him as an angry and unforgiving man so incapable of letting go of the hatred he harbored for Ali. That Joe was elsewhere on this spring day.”

Mr. Kram describes Joe Frazier as unimposing for a heavyweight, at just under six feet tall, but his aggressive style of coming out “smokin’,” and his willingness to step in and be pounded by an opponent in order to get close and throw his powerful left hook, made him a champion.

His rivalry with Muhammad Ali captured the attention of many people who were otherwise uninterested in boxing. Mr. Kram notes that the Ali-Frazier rivalry exposed the deep fissures in America. Muhammad Ali was exiled from the ring for evading the draft during the Vietnam War and was scorned for his conversion to the Nation of Islam. While Joe Frazier, up from the abject poverty of South Carolina became what Mr. Kram called an “involuntary hero” to the “white chauvinist ethic of TV character Archie Bunker.”

I take issue with Mr. Kram’s broad characterization of Joe Frazier’s fan base. Muhammad Ali denigrated America and white people on numerous occasions, while Joe Frazier asked why he always talked about hatred and separation. As Mr. Kram himself points out in the book, Joe Frazier replied to Muhammad Ali’s charge that he had too many white friends, by pointing out that the world was made up of all kinds of people.

Apart from politics and racial issues, the best parts of the book are the fights. Mr. Kram does a good job of describing the blow-by-blow of the famous fights. Fight fans will enjoy this book, and non-fight fans should read the book to discover the compelling life of a true champion.

Years after Joe Frazier retired, Mr. Kram recounts an incident where the former champ encountered some young boys and one them said his father told him that Muhammad Ali had been drugged during their great fight.

“You run home and tell your daddy, he’s right. He was drugged,” Joe Frazier told the young boy. “I drugged him with a left hook.”

• Paul Davis covers crime, espionage and terrorism.

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