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