Joe Frazier's bond with Philadelphia grows tighter in wake of his death
PHILADELPHIA - With a pair of boxing gloves draped over Joe Frazier's casket, the Rev. Jesse Jackson stood nearby and delivered a stirring knockout pitch for the fitting tribute he said the late heavyweight champion deserved, the immortal reward his family longed for in his life.
"Tell them Rocky is fictitious, Joe was reality," Jackson said, referring to the hometown character from the boxing movie, "Rocky," and whose statue stands at the base of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "Rocky's fists are frozen in stone. Joe's fists are smokin'. Rocky never faced Ali or Holmes or Foreman. Rocky never tasted his own blood. Champions are made in the ring, not in the movies.
"There deserves to be a statue of Joe Frazier in downtown Philadelphia."
Long overdue, perhaps, Jackson should, at last, get his wish. After all, in the year after his death, Frazier's legacy is stronger than ever in Philadelphia.
Perhaps there's just something about boxing champions and this city , a 1-2 combo that perseveres through time. Because in the 12 months since Frazier's funeral, Philadelphia has wrapped its arms around his presence and power:
• A fundraising venture for a statue near Philadelphia's three sports stadiums is in the works for the former heavyweight title holder.
• Preservationists are seeking to save Frazier's former gym, which served as his training site and a neighborhood anchor in north Philadelphia. Frazier sold the building in 2008.
• There's a "Fight Night" planned at City Hall for a one-time showing of his 1971 "Fight of the Century" bout against Muhammad Ali.
• His former manager is trying to write a biography on Frazier's life outside the ring.
• And last week, Frazier was put to rest in a newly designed crypt that his children had built for him. Floyd Mayweather Jr. helped pay for the more fitting resting place.
Frazier, who died Nov. 7, 2011 after a brief battle with liver cancer at the age of 67, spent much of his life in his adopted hometown fighting until the end to earn respect as one of the city's sports greats. By the end of 2013, Frazier's brand and being could boast a little cottage industry of tourist spots around town.
On Saturday, friends and family gathered at Ivy Hill Cemetery Chapel to unveil the crypt, an upgrade from the unmarked mausoleum where Frazier's remains were kept for the last year. The tomb has a picture of Frazier draped in his Olympic gold medal and wearing his heavyweight championship belt.
"We finally have something to sit there and say, `That's Joe Frazier's grave'," Frazier's 20-year-old son, Derek, said. "He's by himself. There's no one around him."
Derek Frazier has tried in the past year to find way to honor his father, and recently made his boxing debut himself. Frazier got in shape and fought an exhibition bout in New Jersey for an upcoming reality show special, and said "my dad was always on my mind," before he stepped into the ring.
He couldn't escape Smokin' Joe's presence when he helped pull away the sheet and saw his father's image on the crypt for the first time.
"It was a shocker to see how really nice it was," he said. "I was happy to know I had something to look at. I was happy. This is what I've been waiting for, something to go visit."
Frazier's fans have waited decades for a statue to visit like so many other of Philadelphia's great stars of yesteryear. Yes, Rocky Balboa has one. But so does former Broadway personality Kate Smith in honor of her performances of "God Bless America," before big Philadelphia Flyers games.
Mayor Michael Nutter kicked off a campaign in September to raise money for a statue of the boxing great, a tribute he called "long overdue." The $150,000 fundraising goal includes money for maintenance of the memorial, which Nutter hoped to unveil by the end of 2013.
Frazier's statue would be placed at Xfinity Live, an entertainment complex near Philadelphia's three sports stadiums that was built on the same ground that once held The Spectrum, home to the 76ers, Flyers, and some of Frazier's fights. The exact location at the complex is still to be determined.
Lawyer Richard Hayden, who represents Xfinity Live, said funds raised through FrazierStatue.com, "did not generate a lot of direct contributions." So Nutter will join organizers at a $1,000-per-ticket Nov. 26 screening of "The Fight of the Century." Frazier vs. Muhammad Ali from 1971. Seating was limited to the first 60 responders.
"We believe," Hayden said, "we'll be able to close the gap."
Hayden said the sculptors selected to submit statue designs have until the end of November and a committee led by Frazier's estate will select the winner. He expected a formal presentation to be made to the city in January and the statue ready for the public in December 2013.
But it goes beyond statues. Everyone wants in on the Joe Frazier tributes.
Frazier's former manager, Leslie Wolff, said he's already interviewed more than 50 people for a book he's trying to get published next year titled, "Smokin' Joe Frazier: The man through the eyes of his friends and fans."
"I want to help his legacy outside the ring," Wolff said. "There's enough people who will write about the athlete he was. He was a world champion outside the ring."
One of Frazier's daughters, Jacquelyn Frazier-Lyde, is working on a screenplay of her father's life and published the journal "Tribute to My Father Boxing Icon Smokin' Joe Frazier Presented by the Honorable Jacquelyn Fraizier-Lyde," at a Harvard Law School forum, her husband said. Peter Lyde said there are discussions to name a bridge in Frazier's honor in his hometown of Beaufort, S.C.
"He had the opportunity to live anywhere he wanted to live and go where he wanted to go and he stayed in Philadelphia," Peter Lyde said. "We're just thankful and grateful people are coming together now to celebrate him. Better late than never. We're thankful for all the city is doing."
Architecture students at nearby Temple University are preparing an application for the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places seeking historic status for the former gym , a move that will help safeguard it from being razed or radically altered. Dennis Playdon, an adjunct professor at Temple's Tyler School of Art, was inspired to save the North Broad Street building when he saw a "for sale" sign hanging in 2011. His class also is working on a website that would allow users to see how the gym, now a furniture store, once looked when Frazier trained there for some of his biggest fights.
"He's been largely ignored in Philadelphia," Playdon said. "I just didn't want to see him disappear."
Not a chance. Smokin' Joe and Philly will be linked together ... forever.
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