Joe Frazier is one-half, with Muhammad Ali, of one of history’s great sporting rivalries, Smokin’ Joe held the world heavyweight title from 1968-72 and fought three famous duels with Ali, including the “Thrilla in Manila”, a gruelling epic, in which Frazier was famously stopped from fighting the last round because he could no longer see his opponent. His relationship with Ali has often touched hatred and bitterness, but a new documentary called Thriller in Manila, finally gives Frazier’s side. When he talks to Alpha from his old gym in Philadelphia, the Smoke seems happy.
How are you?
Oh, man, they’re tryin’ to get me. How you doin’?
Good. How’s Philadelphia?
It’s a place that I love and they’re trying to clean up their act a little bit, you know, with the kids and stuff. If they don’t get what they need, you and I out on the street are going to have trouble, and the policeman are going to have trouble. Because Mum and Dad didn’t do their job.
Do you still get kids training in the gym?
Yeah, I get a whole bunch of kids in the gym. But I want them to stay and get to the point where they are professionally good. But they just leave me holding the bag.
You still training?
Yeah, the way I see it, I’m not owning the gym for the young people, I’m owning it for the old guys. When you get old you’ve got to keep that condition. Or something bad will happen to you. Boxing keeps you young. I stay in great shape, so I go in the gym right now and can work for an hour, stand 12 rounds without stopping. It means a lot to your health, to your mind. The left hook is still there. But the body has to be physical. I’m 65. Training keeps your mind together, body together.
Good discipline in boxing.
Yes, more families need to teach their kids a little discipline. They should know that this is the way life is. We all need to do our jobs. I try to help, you know? But it needs Mum and Dad. They can see what kids are doing wrong – they need to get them down to the gym. It will straighten them out.
Where have all the good heavyweights gone?
I don’t know what to say. If I say something about American fighters I get myself in trouble. I don’t know what they’re doing.
Maybe kids want to play basketball instead.
Yeah, well, the money’s just as big. Football, basketball, but sport’s a little rougher than boxing. You get hit on the basketball court and can’t hit back.
Kids don’t want to get hurt in boxing, maybe.
I don’t really think that’s it. It’s important that people teach them right. I think if you hit a man with a body shot or in the vein that runs around their chin and knock him out, that doesn’t mean it hurt him. You just stay down for the count.
I think you could hurt me.
No, I don’t want to do that.
I hear you love music nearly as much as boxing.
I love it. I use it as my trainer. Tom Jones, Lionel Richie, James Brown, Sam Cook. I don’t know what they’re playing today.
When you were training for fights, that’s what you listened to?
That’s right. I love that old good blues, man. James Butler, James Brown. Music is just the timing of the beat. I knew it just before I even knew the fight game. If I didn’t sing on Sunday when I went to church, my mother wanted to know why. “What’s the matter with you, Mister Man?” But in boxing, that music helps keep your timing together. And your mind.
Do you still sing with a group called the Knockouts?
Yeah, still got them. If we’re getting a little tired or a little low, we get together and play. There’s seven musicians, three girls dance and two other singers. We rehearse about once a month and now we’re going to do some road shows, maybe once a week at night.
Have you seen the new movie?
No, but everyone who has seen it has liked it, so I’ve got to join right in there with them.
It tells your story for once, instead of Ali’s.
It was Muhammad’s idea that we have some wars together. And he was the one who did all the talking. But I didn’t understand. If you have one religions or two religions, it works against people all over the world. You’re all supposed to live as one. Muhammad and I ended up having wars. I don’t believe his religion is just the one God. Doesn’t matter if you’re a Catholic, Muslim, Baptist, it’s one God.
In the film you see the Manila fight footage for the first time.
I looked at it but I don’t learn nothin’ from it. It’s great for a trainer to show if a fighter wants to learn from it. I remember it was hot. I don’t think the brain was working too good then because it was so hot – about 120 (Fahrenheit – about 49C) in the ring. But over the years you train a certain way and you know what you’ve got to do to make sure you haven’t put the fire out. It doesn’t matter how hot it gets, once you’re out there in the ring, anywhere you go, you can go the distance. Once you put the gloves on there’s no doubt about that. But I loved it.
Do you still think about how that fight ended?
The other guy got the decision, OK? But I think I won the fight. But the corner stopped it. The deal was you don’t question the corner man. He could see more than I could, and he could see one of my eyes were closed and I could hardly see out of my other eye. They asked why they should let me go out and get hurt. But he didn’t know Muhammad was so tired as well.
Do you feel angry now?
No! I beat him up two or three times. I never get angry. If that’s the way he is (Ali insulted Frazier repeatedly before fights), that’s his style, I accept it, do you know what I mean? But the good man above marks it down. You can’t question his word. And a lot of things he said, for a religious guy, you shouldn’t be able to say that. The last time I talked to him I didn’t get angry. Because I’m the guy who helped him get reinstated (after he was barred from fighting for not going to Vietnam). When we fought, people asked me if I was scared or mad, but I was happy because I’d got him to sign a contract.
He was mean to you, wasn’t he?
I just paid no attention. I didn’t try to fight that rough. In the ring is where it’s time to fight. I don’t walk around with no chip on my shoulder for nobody. I’ve had guys throw some cruel things at me over the years. People say things to me I don’t really know, but it doesn’t give me the right to get mad about it. I’m a saved guy.
Was fighting Ali personal?
It was business and personal. A lot of guys didn’t go in there to injure you; very few guys there were rough. Muhammad was a really, really tough guy. But he didn’t speak English so I didn’t know what he was saying. I just wanted to get the job done when the bell rang. I didn’t intend to do everything that happened, but the good man above controlled that.
If you bumped into Ali now, would you talk to him?
Sure. I don’t know if he could even hear me. I do talk to him once in a while. But if I go places and he’s there, he go out the back door or I’ll come in the side door. His team don’t want me to see him, cos they’re afraid I’ll say something wrong. But I’ll never say anything dirty, it’s below the belt line. He’s safe (laughs). He’s lucky there ain’t no bell; if there was a bell ringing he’d be in trouble.
Were you confident for that first fight against him?
Yeah. They said, “Joe, do you think you can take him?” I said, “I’ve got him in my back pocket.”
And you did win – the “Fight of the Century”…
Yeah, they stopped the world to watch us fight.
You knocked him down twice.
That’s raw power, a lot of power.
Was that your best fight, your best moment?
I would say for all my fights I trained the same – to wage war. That’s why it was exciting, because he was undefeated, I was undefeated. He talked about how I had his title. And I went to the White House and asked the President to give him the licence. I was the good guy then, you know what I mean?
You must have been so happy to beat him.
Oh, yeah. My trainer said to me, “You go out there, you win this fight, your way will be paid for life. There you go – we’re still talking about it 30 years later. People want to see the guy who knocked Ali down. And I only weighed 199 (pounds) at the time. I wasn’t a big guy. But I was a heavyweight. When I came out of my mama I was a big baby, so I was always a heavyweight.
What was your toughest fight?
Oh, man, I fought some hard guys. You want to talk about George (Foreman), that was a big hard fight – he came in and took over (George Foreman put Frazier down six times in two rounds). Guys like George “Scrap Iron” Johnson and Joe Bugner, from England – that went the distance. It was exciting.
Do you ever talk to George Foreman?
I talk to George once or twice a year. He’s a good guy.
He was a big, scary guy in the 1970s.
Yeah, sometimes. But now we can sit down and look at the things that happened, and we get along fine together.
How would you go against modern fighters, like Tyson and Lennox Lewis?
I’d do somethin’ else! That’s the way it would be, OK? I’d be doin’ somethin’ else. But all those guys I fought, no matter what their size, I took them out. You’ve got to be able to take it just as much as you give it out. And I was a big guy as far as they were concerned, because of the power of my punches. The whole idea was to go out there and get the job done.
You held down a job at the start of your career, didn’t you?
There’s nothing wrong with it – it makes you a better man and a better provider for your family. I even went bootlegging with my father. He was living with the family at that time. I used to go the liquor still and cook liquor for my dad. Keep it quiet.
They aren’t going to arrest you now.
I don’t know, they might go back and find some of those old stills around. But it was great, man, it was great growing up with my dad. He was a great guy.
Did you really hit joints of beef when you trained?
Like (Sylvester) Stallone (as seen in Rocky)? Yeah, but Stallone never worked in no slaughterhouse. Stallone copied Joe Frazier’s slaughterhouse. I’m the guy who worked out in the gym to music. All this stuff I’ve done. It’s my story, but I’ll let the fans take care of that. I ran the park, ran the streets and up those steps. I used to do that after three miles of roadwork. And come back down slow.
How’s your eyesight these days?
Now I can see so good, I could hit a mosquito going 100mp/h. I had an operation on my left eye a couple of years back. That’s why doctors and I get along good.
How did you fight the toughest guys on the planet partially blind?
They didn’t go the distance. I just took ‘em out quick. Bye, you gotta go.
Do you remember fighting in Australia?
Sure, I’ve been there before. (His next fight after the Thrilla in Manila was a 1975 TKO victory against Jimmy Ellis in Melbourne). Some of the older guys will remember it.
Good to speak to you, Joe.
Thanks, man. Boogie boogie!
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