SMOKIN’ JOE: FANBOY FOR THREE MINUTES

Those of us involved in this write-for-a-living scam for any length of time get the opportunity to meet some big deal people along the way as part of the job. Once in awhile, it’s somebody you admire.

For me, Joe Frazier, the former world heavyweight boxing champion from Philadelphia who passed away on Monday after a battle with liver cancer, was one of those people.

Frazier was as undersized as he was relentless and courageous in the ring, never taking a step backward when the bell rang. Smokin’ Joe epitomized unmitigated fury and aggressiveness.

Frazier was Mike Tyson before there was a Mike Tyson. Maybe that’s why I cheered for Frazier, why I pretended I was him while hammering away at a heavy bag in my garage as a kid. That peek-a-boo defence. That wicked left hook. A little wrecking ball was Frazier.

While my pals, most of the people of my generation for that matter, worshipped at the alter of Muhammed Ali, I was pulling for Frazier, the overmatched underdog. Ali didn’t even look like a fighter. Too pretty. Not Joe. My friends didn’t hear the end of it for weeks after Frazier knocked Ali down and beat him up at Madison Square Garden.

That’s why I was so thrilled by a chance meeting with Frazier, long after his fighting days were done. It’s why I laughed out loud Monday when I thought about what a fan boy I’d been at that meeting in Las Vegas. Embarrassing.

TURN IN YOUR PRESS PASS

Before I jumped into the rink full-time covering the Edmonton Oilers with Jim Matheson at The Journal, I spent six years covering the boxing game, mostly chronicling the career of flyweight Scott Olson.

It was a gig that took me to places like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Reno and Phoenix. Along the way, I interviewed fighters I’d grown up watching, like George Chuvalo, George Foreman (I never did forgive the big bully for destroying Frazier), Ray Leonard and Tyson, along with up-and-comers and champs like Oscar de la Hoya, Bernard Hopkins and James Toney.

I was in Las Vegas in March of 1996 to cover a fight between Tyson and Brit Frank Bruno when I met Frazier in, of all places, the men’s washroom at the MGM Grand during a VIP party.

It was then that I, Mr. Objective Sportswriter, a scribe who’d been at the writing game about 13 years at the time, turned into a rubber-legged, gushing, knucklehead fan.

PLEASED TO MEET YOU

Having consumed too many soft drinks at a roped-off reception at the MGM the night before the fight, I hit the washroom. I’m standing there and I look to my right. It’s Charlie Sheen. I look to my left. There stands JOE FRAZIER. Hey, I’d been around. I wasn’t going to act like a star-struck mouth-breather.

Like it was no big deal, I said, "You’re Joe Frazier." Apparently, I said it loud enough that I prompted half the people in the joint to shoot me the hairy eyeball, like I was some sort of drunken wedding crasher.

With both of us in mid-pee, Frazier looked over at me and said with a smirk, "You don’t mind if I don’t shake your hand right now, right?" After pissing all over my shoes, I made my way over to the sinks and waited, fidgeting like a gushing groupie. Smokin’ Joe came over.

Frazier looked at the credential hanging around my neck and said, "You’re here for the fight." All I remember is muttering incoherently for a minute or two. Then, I thrust one of the notepads writers covering the fight were given at him. "Joe, could you sign this for me?" Frazier obliged. "I got to go. People are waiting on me. Nice to meet you," Frazier said, extending his right hand.

Just before he got to the door, I did what any experienced Mr. Objective Sportswriter would do under the circumstances — I mustered my lamest Ali impression, shook my fist and blurted out, "Joe Fraaaaazier."

Frazier spun, took one step toward me, dipped his shoulder and made like he was going to throw that left hook I’d admired in absolute awe as a kid. I flinched, Frazier smiled and winked, then out the door he went without laying a glove on me. I’ll never forget it.

RIP, Joe.

Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.

  • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

    You should get back into covering boxing. Fightnews is always looking for guys. Kinda sad no one really covers the sport here anymore.

  • Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy!

    And is it just me or did boxing have a different swagger back in the day? Doubt we’ll ever see days like that: Smokin’ Joe, Iron Mike, The Greatest of All Time, Sugar Ray, Big George, etc.

  • Gerald R. Ford

    It’s funny. My old man used to decry fighting in hockey as “embarrassing thuggery”. Whenever I’d shoot back at him how much he loved boxing, he’d say: “Yes. Because that’s a science and an art, boy.”

    The older I get, the more I think the old man was right about a lot more things than I wish I could have given him credit for at the time.

    Regardless, that’s a great memory you have there, Robin. Nice.

  • Gerald R. Ford

    RB – I didn’t know you covered boxing way back when. I’m a big Oilers fan and a religious Nation reader, but the boxing game is always #1 for me. I fought as an amateur through my teens, and I have been to a number of pro cards in Canada and in the US, so I have had the opportunity to meet some of the pros, refs, judges, etc.

    What I especially love about the boxing community is that most of the pros and ground-level guys are nice, genuine people when you meet them. That’s been my experience with the guys I’ve met – e.g. fighters like Scotty Olson, George Chuvalo, and Willie DeWitt; refs like Kenny Bayless and Vic Draculich; and trainers like Roger and Floyd Mayweather Sr. (both of whom are totally insane, mind you, but were really approachable and friendly).

    It comes as no surprise that Joe was the same. My gushing fan moment would have been with Arturo Gatti, but I never got the chance.

  • The poster formerly known as Koolaid drinker #33

    Great piece RB.

    The Thrilla in Manila was the first boxing match I ever recall watching either live or on the tube. I was barely two years old living in a small town in the Philippines. I remember what seemed like the entire block gathered in our neighbour’s house as they were one of the few houses in town that had a television.

    I became a lifelong Ali fan that day and I also became a boxing fan. To this day, I still consider that fight to be the greatest fight I have ever seen. Ali is my favorite sports figure of all time so I hated Frazier growing up. I didn’t really appreciate how good he was until later on. He was one of the best.

      • The poster formerly known as Koolaid drinker #33

        That’s great that you got to check it out. It’s been forever since I’ve been. I think I was there for a concert or a basketball game when I was young but have not seen it since it’s renovated. I’ll make sure to check it out next time I’m back.

  • RB, I won’t disagree that the 70’s had a different swagger, and the best fought the best more frequently (esp heavyweights circa the 70s, and the golden age from lightweight through middleweight in the 80s with Hagler, Heards, Leonard, Duran, Pryor , Benitez, etc.)

    Nothing will rival the Ali-Frazier fights nowadays because boxing just isn’t as popular. It gets next to no free tv exposure (excepting the odd low level espn fight).

    However, if you’re asking for fights other than the Gatti-Ward Trilogy, how about:

    the Barerra – Morales trilogy; the Marquez-Vasquez trilogy; Oscar DLH fought lots of prime, game guys when he was in his prime(Trinidad, Quartey, Whitaker) ….

    Good fighters are still fighting good fighters in their primes, just not quite as often, and without the mass fan appeal becuase the sport is generally less popular.

    • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

      My biggest problem with boxing is the side show that goes on. Mayweather is killing the sport. People are switching to the UFC where guys like Mayweather are taken out back and kicked in the arse out the door.

      There is still some real good boxing matchups to be had, but who wants to pay 50 bucks to see the guy who is thought to be one of the best in the world sucker punch a guy in the 4th round? Or pay another 50 bucks to see a fight end in the second round because of some sort of WWE move?

      • Jason Gregor

        MMA is making big strides in North America, but around the world boxing is still much bigger. It’s not close really. Boxing will start feeling the pinch in other areas of the world if they don’t start having the elite fight the elite, but it is still more popular and makes much more money than MMA worldwide.

  • misfit

    Up until I was probably 12 or 13, every boxing match I’d ever watched was on VHS and even though he was before my time, Frazier was always a favorite of mine. My grandfather (and everyone else in his rather large immediate family, for that matter) was a boxing nut. Like your friends growing up, his man was Ali without a doubt, but Frazier was the guy who always stood out to me. The guy scared the pants off me, partly because I always got the feeling that he kinda liked it when he got hit. I remember a George Foreman interview a few years back where he mentioned something about when he fought Joe Frazier and how he almost looked disappointed when he missed him.

  • Mitch

    Robin it’s always great to meet atheletes, I’m a hockey guy I’ve got my picture taken with RNH and Hall seperate times in Penticton. It’s a great feeling meeting people that so many people look up too. I would love to meet Gretzky, it may never happen. Glad you met one of your hero’s.

    • Like I said, people who work in the sportswriting business get to meet a lot of people considered celebrities because that’s part of the job. It’s usually in an interview situation and, more often than not, in a scrum with other reporters. Not exactly personal — much like fans at staged autograph sessions.

      Once in awhile, though, you run into somebody at an event related to what you do and, rarer still, it’s somebody you’ve looked up to as a kid or somebody you simply admire. For me, Frazier is one of those guys.

  • Crackenbury

    Boxing was a different sport back then. In today’s world of PPV people don’t realize just how big a heavyweight fight was and the absolute legends these guys were. As a kid I used to love tuning into ABC with Howard Cosell calling the fight. I admit I was one of the Ali fanboys and not much of a Frazier fan at the time, but he sure gave us something to remember in each of those three Ali fights. RIP joltin’ Joe!

  • Dustin Terpstra

    Great article Rob. I have a set of my boxing gloves sitting on my window sill right now signed by Smokin’ Joe before moving back to Edmonton I lived in Halifax for 2 years where I boxed at a gym in which Joe stopped by one day. Was an amazing day to say the least.

  • KSC10032

    I’m another old-time fan of heavyweight boxing — (I’m pretty much an exact contemporary of Mr. Brownlee) — though I’ve drifted away from most boxing of late.

    Though,now, tinged with much sadness, given how their lives wound down, I would urge all fans to “you-tube” the first Frazier-Jerry Quarry bout to see for themselves what is being talked about here. IMO the best battle of the era.