Mark Kram Jr Interview: Part 3
By Chris Akers
Nearly six months after losing his title to George Foreman, Frazier was back in the ring and fighting away again.
The venue was Earl’s Court in London to fight the European heavyweight champion Joe Bugner. Less than two months after that beating Bugner on points, Yank Durham passed away at the age of 52 from a stroke. At the same time, the relationship with Cloverlay was winding down and Eddie Futch took over as head trainer.
“Yank had made Eddie promise to ‘take care of my boy,’ explains Mark. “Eddie had a great deal of affection for Joe and promise Yank that he would. After the Foreman fight, Eddie got Joe into the gym and was assessing what was left in the tank.”
Enough in the tank to fight Ali a second time at Madison Square Garden in January 1974.
“It was the lesser of the three fights,” says Mark. “Neither of them were champions. It was a 12 round fight which was marred by poor refereeing by Tony Perez, who allowed Ali to clinch over 130 times in the fight. It was a tactical victory for Ali, but one couldn’t draw too much from it.
“The highlight of that fight was the pre-fight brawl that Ali and Frazier got into during the interview with Howard Cosell on Wide World of Sports, where words were exchanged and Joe got up and they actually ended up scuffling on the ground a week or so before the fight. It was just indicative of how Ali could get under Joe’s skin at that point. There are some who think that Ali actually won the fight at that moment because he got Joe to lose it.”
Later that year, Ali famously regains the title by beating Foreman in Zaire. A year later, Ali and Frazier would fight for the final time in The Thrilla in Manilla. Yet towards the end of his career, is it true that Frazier was blind in one eye but he managed to fool the doctors about that injury?
“He had cataracts in one eye and his vision was badly impaired. He was limited in that way. When he sustained damage to the eye in the fight itself, towards the end of the fight he was basically blind, feeling his way through, listening for Ali’s breath in trying to judge distance without any vision.
“It was a precarious situation for Joe, which is why I think Eddie did Joe a favour by stopping the fight. People had said Ali was going to quit if Joe hadn’t have quit. I don’t necessarily believe that. I don’t think that Angelo would have allowed Ali to quit on the stool at that point. I do think that Joe could have been damaged in the 15th round. Even though Ali didn’t have much in the tank himself, I think that he had no business being in there in the 15th round, although Joe himself thought that he Eddie had deprived him of his chance to pull the victory out. And he held a grudge for many years.”
As Frazier got older, as Mark explains, it appears that he found peace with his trainer’s decision to pull him out. This seems to be verified by a letter than Frazier wrote to Futch.
“Joe wrote Eddie a letter, which is in the book, and at the end of it, telling Eddie that he now understands why he had stopped the fight. Joe was a headstrong individual and not always easy to get on with outside the ring, but he had a big heart. He helped people in all sorts of ways throughout his life. He and Eddie found peace.”
After losing to Foreman for a second time, Frazier retired and started training some fighters.
“He worked with Duane Bobick for a while. He was considered to be a hot property at the time, a white heavyweight. He worked with a lot of Philly fighters such as Smoking Bert Cooper later on in the 80s. He got some fighters started and they ended up leaving him for Lou Duva.
“Joe was not an effective manager. I think he knew one way and that was his way. He tried to shape fighters’ styles into his style. So that was one of the impasses that he had with Marvis I think. Marvis was a good athlete, but he wasn’t a heavyweight. He might have been a cruiserweight. But I don’t know if he had the hunger for the ring as his father had. But they were very close as father and son. Loved each other tremendously. I think Marvis didn’t want to let Joe down.”
Throughout his life, Frazier had innate decency. He would help anyone that required help.
“He once was in a limousine with his son Hector and another fighter on a cold December day in the mid-80s. They were going to Atlantic City for a fight but before he gets out of Philadelphia, he comes across a legless man in a wheelchair with a can of kerosene in his lap, pushing his way across Broad Street. Joe pulled over to the side, helped the man into his limousine.
“Hector and the other fighter put the wheelchair and the kerosene in the truck. They drive the man home, which is in North Philadelphia, and help the man inside. Before Joe leaves, he takes a wad of bills and says to the man that he looks like he could use some love. Love was Joe’s term for money. He peeled off a couple of hundred dollars to give to the guy. He did this sort of thing out of the public and not infrequently.
“He was generous that way. If he came across a motorist that was stranded on the side of the road with a flat tire, he would pull over and change it for him. He was a man of the town. You didn’t need to make an appointment to see Joe Frazier. All you had to do was walk up and knock on the gym door and he is there. He was very generous with his time, with all sorts of people. He lived a righteous life. I’d like to say that he wasn’t a perfect man. He was a good man but not a perfect man.”
One of the saddest photos I’ve ever seen was from a couple of years ago. It was of Frazier’s gym in Philadelphia. More accurately what his gym looks like now. Instead of been converted into a museum recognising the city’s rich boxing history, it is now a discount furniture store, with little in the way to remind people of what it was.
“His daughter Rita, who worked with me closely on the book, would love to do something like that,” explains Mark. “To have it be a museum. As Joe aged, he had been living up in the gym. It became difficult for him to get up and down the stairs because the stairs are very steep leading up to his apartment. There were unpaid taxes on it, so the place was in financial jeopardy.
“The other piece of it was that the building itself was decrepit and would take a fortune to refurb if even that could be done. There were water problems and the structure of the building was more or less crumbling. All that said, it is indeed depressing to ride by and see a window filled with half-priced signs for bedding. All the great moments that occurred in that gym, it was the centre of the boxing world in many ways during the 60s and 70s. Everyone knew Joe Frazier’s gym and to see what it’s now become. That it’s reduced to a place full of cheap furniture it’s infinitely sad.”
From his father reporting on the three Ali-Frazier fights, to writing a biography about him, it is safe to say that Joe Frazier has played a significant part in Mark’s life. So he as much as anyone can explain why people hold Frazier in such high regard and esteem.
“I think that to begin with Ali had his fans and Joe had his fans. It’s interesting if you look online, they’re still battling it out. In various fans’ pages and so forth,” he laughs. “I ask myself the question of why that is. I think that Joe won the respect of people for his work ethic.
“The fact that he was a smaller man who had risen and outperformed his size. His decency that he projected. How Ali had belittled him and try to humiliate him I think strike people as kind of an unfairness. If you think if all that happened today in the context of today’s age, Ali’s act would not have gone over as well as it did then.
“Ali evolved over the years outside the ring and when he finished his career. I don’t think the Ali of the early 70s is the same man that we saw towards the latter part of his life. I think he evolved, and I think he regretted what he said about Joe. And it was hard for Joe to accept that apology. He didn’t feel it was sincere or didn’t feel it was conveyed properly. But if you go to the end of my book, you’ll see what I’m driving at. They were able to find a place of peace and expel the poison they’d carried around each other for so long.”
Smokin’ Jo: The Life of Joe Frazier is out now.