An Interview With Mark Kram Jr: Part 1
By Chris Akers
Speaking to Mark Kram Jr on-screen via Zoom, it is clear from the books stacked behind him that he is a fan of boxing, He is the author of Smokin Jo: The Life of Joe Frazier and also the son of the late Mark Kram, who was an acclaimed writer for Sports Illustrated.
In the first of a three-part interview, I first asked him what was it about boxing that attracted him to the sport.
“Well I grew up around it,” says Mark. “My father was the boxing writer for Sports Illustrated in the 60s and 70s. He covered the Ali-Frazier fights, all three of them, and really distinguished himself in that field. So I had an interest in it dated back to then. Only when I became a sportswriter myself did I attach myself to Sugar Ray Leonard’s rising career.
“So from around 1978, I was very much involved with Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns and Marvin Hagler. I covered that piece of it. When I moved to Philadelphia to work for the Daily News, I got to know Joe, who of course had been retired by then. So between 87 and Joe’s death in 2011, I got to know him, I spent some time with him during that period and I got to know the people around him pretty well. I’ve never been a boxing writer in a pure sense, but I’ve certainly written about it extensively over the years.”
While he knew Joe Frazier personally, it is interesting that Mark decided to write about him, especially as a lot has been written about Frazier over the years.
“I thought that, while he’s been written about quite a bit in the press, no full-length comprehensive book had been done on him. I feel that as a figure that was involved in what is certainly the greatest series of sporting events in the last century, I thought that someone should take a closer look at him. I decided that I better do it now, as opposed to someone coming along 10 years from now, who would only be able to draw on the clips and the journalism that had been done.
“I was able to get the people who knew Joe from his inner circle. Not everyone was still around. Key figures like Yank Durham and Eddie Futch were gone. But I knew Eddie Futch and I knew some of the people who had intersected with Joe’s life in important ways.
“Between my knowledge and the people I was able to get involved in the book by interviewing them as sources, I think I was able to put together the kind of deep-dive I wouldn’t have been able to do had I waited any longer. I think Joe was an important subject in the realm of sports. I think his relationship with Ali was an important relationship. How he was perceived racially I think is an important part of the story. There were many things that begged a closer look.”
Frazier’s upbringing, like anyone else’s upbringing, influenced him, not just as a man, but also on his boxing career.
“Well, he was raised in the poorest state in the country, in Beaufort South Carolina. He grew up in really abject circumstances in a small almost hut-like house, that was propped up on oak logs.
“All sorts of diseases were running through the community down there. Poverty, malnutrition. He was doting on by his father, who was a handyman cum bootlegger. His father Ruben used to take him out into the woods as he was working up his corn liqueur. And Joe used to help him with that. His mother works in the fields for a commercial farmer, spending long hours in a big broad brim hat and a long skirt and work boots, picking vegetables.”
All this was against the backdrop of the demeaning nature of the Jim Crow laws, adding to the hard life he had to endure. Out of this hardship, he grew up with a fighting spirit. Yet boxing appealed to him from an early age and seeing his idol at a young age strengthen that appeal, not only for boxing as a whole but in wanting to emulate the success of his idol.
“Joe Louis passed through Beaufort for an exhibition back when Joe was about six years old,” explains Mark. “Joe Louis was a huge figure in black communities at that time. So Joe gravitated to boxing. He filled a sack with corn hobs and sand and bricks, and he became his heavy bag.
“As far as how it shaped him, it was assumed that anyone that was going to do everything with their lives had to leave Beaufort. There was no future there for him. Plus, it was a racially uncomfortable place for a young black man to survive in. Also, he has a hot temper. His mother seemed to think that if he stayed in Beaufort, he really wouldn’t meet with a very good outcome.
“So when he was 15, he took a bus to New York to live with some relatives. But I get the sense that he was back and forth. He had four children by the time he was 19 by two different women. He didn’t have any kind of a future until he got to the gym.”
Yet soon after he arrived in New York, Frazier was getting into trouble, such as stealing cars. As Mark explains, this led to him moving again. Boxing wise, this became the making of him.
“His family was worried about him, so they sent him to Philadelphia to live, where he moved in with his older sister. She told him that if he got in trouble down there, there was nothing she could do for him. She suggested that he go to the 23rd Police Athletic League – PAL – and meet the cops there, learn to box, and get some exercise.
“Joe was up for that. He had picked up a fair amount of weight. He was about 35 pounds overweight. He figured that it would be good to get some exercise so he could fit back into his clothes. Turns out he went to the gym and the trainers there got a look at his left hook. It didn’t take them long to figure out that this guy had some natural ability. He got into the amateur ranks and rose the rankings.”
Rise Frazier did, losing only one fight in his amateur career. Unfortunately for him, it was to Buster Mathis Jr. Mathis took Frazier’s spot in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.
“He was a competitive amateur. Won some championships as an amateur. He ran into Mathis, who was a very difficult opponent for him at that time. Mathis was a huge fight. He was huge in size. He was north of 350 pounds, whereas Joe was only 190 at that time. So Mathis in a three-round fight more or less dominated Joe and blocked his path to the Olympics.”
Yet misfortunate fell onto Mathis and present Frazier with an opportunity.
“Buster broke his hand in one of the Olympic trials and Joe stepped in as the replacement. So it was fortuitous for him and he made the most of it. He went to Tokyo and mowed down the competition. He broke his hand in one of the later fights of the tournament, but he did win the gold.”
After his success in Tokyo, Frazier returns to America and decides to turn professional. Yet opportunities did not initially come to him to receive backing.
“Back then, someone comes home with a gold medal and there are all sorts of opportunities waiting for them. That wasn’t the case with Joe. In 1964, he was thought to be too small to be an effective heavyweight. So consequently, he had difficulty getting backing behind him. A man stepped forward called Peter Fuller, who was from Boston, and he offered to set Joe up, with the proviso that Joe come to Boston and leave Philadelphia and Yank Durham behind. Joe wasn’t going to do that.”
A management team called Cloverlay was formed to help him.
“Cloverlay was formed when a local pastor William Grey, who was connected to the city leaders and business leaders in Philadelphia, put together a consortium of investors, much like the consortium of investors that Ali had in 1960 of 11 wealthy businessmen who got Ali up and running.
“The framework was similar, though there were more investors with Cloverlay. So basically, they were put together to give Joe a monthly salary so he could train and support his family. They took care of his taxes and paid his expenses to smooth the way for him. He was a hugely beneficial operation for Joe.”
One of the investors in Cloverlay was one Larry Merchant, who at the time was working in Philadelphia.
“That was a bit of a gag. Larry was a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. He was a creative thinker and he thought it would be great if the local paper had a piece of Joe. So I think he brought a share of some sort. It was more of a lark than anything. It wasn’t anything driven by financial gain. More journalistic enterprise.”