Beyond The Glory: Joe Frazier (Documentary)
Joe Frazier outside his Philadelphia gym in 1996. His relationship with the city was complicated.
By RAY RIVERA
Published: September 4, 2012
PHILADELPHIA — The three-story brick building stands like a ghost of what it once was, the letters “Joe Frazier’s Gym” stenciled across the facade in washed-out letters. A former destination for aspiring fighters and children seeking refuge from the gang violence of North Philadelphia, the gym is now a discount furniture store.
A sign on the window reads “Knockout Prices.”
Now, nearly a year after Mr. Frazier’s death, momentum is building to designate his former gym a historic site. The city is also working with his estate to erect a statue honoring him.
The efforts are a rethinking of Mr. Frazier’s legacy in his adopted city, which never so much as named a street after him during his lifetime. The question for many who knew and admired Mr. Frazier: What took so long?
“There’s a statue of Rocky, a movie prop, at the Art Museum, but nothing to honor a legitimate heavyweight champion who came out of Philadelphia,” said Stan Hochman, 83, who as a sportswriter for The Philadelphia Daily News became close to Mr. Frazier.
Mr. Frazier’s relationship with the city was complicated. People flocked to him for autographs, especially in North Philadelphia, a neighborhood of boarded-up row houses, drug markets and littered streets. But even there, he labored in the shadow of his rival Muhammad Ali, who ridiculed him as an “Uncle Tom” and the “Great White Hope.”
Joe Frazier’s Gym, now a discount furniture store, is for sale.
Mr. Ali later expressed remorse, calling the taunts prefight hype, but they were hard to shake. Mr. Frazier did not help his cause, visiting the Nixon White House and embracing Frank Rizzo, the police commissioner in the late 1960s and early ’70s who later became mayor and who was a despised figure among many of the city’s African-Americans.
As the first of Mr. Frazier’s three epic bouts with Mr. Ali approached in 1971, many here backed Mr. Ali even as they watched Mr. Frazier train at his gym on North Broad Street.
“That was a big deal,” said Albert Talley, 58, who grew up in the neighborhood. “Even though Joe was from here, Ali was our man.” Mr. Frazier won that match.
Mr. Frazier thought of Philadelphia as his hometown, but many there supported Muhammad Ali, left, before their first fight in 1971.
Mr. Talley guessed that one reason the city never honored Mr. Frazier was that he was believed to be a Republican, “and this is a Democratic town.”
Weatta Collins, one of Mr. Frazier’s 11 children, said her father was never political. “He didn’t care if people were Republican or Democrat,” said Ms. Collins, 48. “If someone needed him, he was there.”
Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat and former Pennsylvania governor who was Philadelphia’s mayor from 1992 to 2000, has lamented not honoring Mr. Frazier with a statue. As mayor, Mr. Rendell said, he frequently called on Mr. Frazier to appear at events involving children and to promote the city. Mr. Frazier even agreed to help honor Mr. Ali at the Philadelphia Convention Center in 1993, though he detested his rival.
“Whether it was the mayor calling on him or a charity calling on him,” Mr. Rendell said, “he never said no, and he never asked to be paid.” If the city’s failure to honor him troubled him, Mr. Frazier did not let on.
“I said to Joe many times, ‘Joe, does that bother you?’ And he would say, ‘No, to hell with them,’ ” said Joe Hand Sr., a former police officer who had a share in Mr. Frazier’s management group, Cloverlay. “But you could tell it did.”
Leslie Wolff, Mr. Frazier’s marketing representative, said the fighter had been in “debt from decades of mismanagement.”
Like many African-Americans here, Mr. Frazier had fled the segregated South as a teenager. He worked in a slaughterhouse, sometimes punching sides of beef to train — ascene immortalized by Sylvester Stallone in “Rocky,” though Mr. Stallone has said he based the title character on the fighter Chuck Wepner.
Mr. Frazier went on to win a gold medal in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo despite fighting his final bout there with a broken thumb.
Mr. Frazier’s management group bought the gym in the late 1960s and later turned it over to him after he retired from fighting, Mr. Hand said. Mr. Frazier kept the doors open for neighborhood youths who could not afford gym dues. He remained a regular in the neighborhood, buying lottery tickets at a Getty station and his signature felt hats from a store on Germantown Avenue.
“Everyone used to run and get his autograph, but basically he was just an ordinary guy,” said Marcella Carr, 48, who lives in North Philadelphia. “We’d just say, ‘Hey, Joe.’ ”
Mr. Frazier lost the gym to back taxes in 2008, said Leslie Wolff, who was Mr. Frazier’s marketing representative during the last seven years of his life. “Joe earned a good living, but he had a lot of debt from decades of mismanagement,” Mr. Wolff said. As important as the gym had been to the neighborhood, the movement to save it was started by an outsider, Dennis Playdon, an adjunct professor of architecture at Temple University, who grew up in South Africa. He noticed the “For Sale” sign on the building last year.
“It occurred to me this was going to be an endangered building, and Joe Frazier’s Gym shouldn’t be lost,” said Mr. Playdon, whose students began researching the building.
The cause got a lift in June when the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed it asone of the country’s 11 most endangered historic sites.
Mr. Playdon and his students are working with the trust and the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia to get the building listed on the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s register of historic places and on the National Register of Historic Places. They are also trying to find a sympathetic buyer. Broad Enterprises Group L.L.C. bought the building last year for $365,000 and put it back on the market for just under $1 million.
Joshua Villwock, a real estate agent representing the property, said the price reflected not only renovations to the building, but also Mr. Frazier’s link to it.
“There is value in the fact that Joe Frazier’s name is still on the building,” Mr. Villwock said.
Lorenzo Carrecter, the athletic director of a nearby recreation center, said the gym, and Mr. Frazier, saved him from the streets by giving him a place to box as a young man.
The gym should be saved, said Mr. Carrecter, 53. “We owe it to him.”