WHYY: Joe Frazier wants his whole story told

Interviewing Smokin Joe Frazier in his Center City apartment on Monday, April 6, 2009 for WHYY, Philadelphia's NPR affiliate.

Boxing legend Joe Frazier is the focus of my second professionally produced radio piece, though the first to carry the radio station’s name in my disptatch. Eight months after filing a trial state government report for the Harrisburg bureau of KYW 1060 news radio, I proudly completed a feature report for WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR affiliate.

I interviewed Frazier, recorded my narration in a sound booth in WHYY’s Old City headquarters and edited it all together with natural sound — aided immeasurably by the patient stewardship of WHYY Web producer Dan Pohlig. I also wrote a short post to run with the piece on the public radio station’s Unobstructed View blog.

In a city eager for celebrities, I’ve never quite understood why we haven’t embraced Smokin’ Joe Frazier. Most of Joe Frazier’s life, which has seen him rise to international, cultural icon and then fade into the shadows, has been spent calling Philadelphia home.

The 65-year-old former heavyweight champion of the world beat Muhammad Ali once, but officially lost to him twice, including in the famed 1975 Thrilla in Manila, which is featured in a new eponymous HBO documentary. [Source]

Read more and hear my audio report here or below.

Listen here.

Then come back to read the backstory and some of what didn’t make it into the final report below.

I’ve interviewed Frazier before — at least three times now, if memory serves. First in my covering his now-shuttered and for sale landmark North Broad Street gym as a columnist for The Temple News, just a short bicycle ride south of his old home. Then, at least once for what was to be a cover story on him for Philadelphia Weekly in March 2008 — what a shame Philadelphia magazine happened to drop its own profile the week before mine. My story got shelved, and I didn’t get my first alt-weekly cover until last week.

This documentary gave my interest in Frazier new life for a story. I find him to be a fascinating character, one worth a far greater amount of attention than he actually gets today.

I saw the HBO documentary this weekend and found it captivating – if a little too kind on Frazier. I really enjoyed its involving the 1970s racial politics these two fighters took on.

Now just a few choice quotations and cuts that didn’t make it into my report — excuse the numbers, which refer to where they are in my recording of our interview:

  • Of course, it was Frazier who helped make the left hook the signature threat of a pugilist from Philadelphia, once a brilliant capital of the sport that has seen better days.
  • “I came up the hard way. I raised my kids the hard way. But they were happy.” [25:35]
  • “I want it to go way back to where I came from.” [9:18]
  • “Everyone says 1971, when I fought Muhammad was a great moment, but what about me getting up early with my father, cooking the liquor… walking down the street in my home state on one side, while my white brother has to walk on the other side.” [9:51]
  • Now he spends slow days following nearly the same exercise regimen he has done for decades, though no longer in his landmark North Philadelphia gym on North Broad Street near Glenwood Avenue.
  • Exercise, he says, “keeps your brain in shape.” [11:50]
  • His daily regimen includes time on a treadmill and a stationary bicycle tucked in the bedroom of his Center City apartment.
  • “I’m not going to box anybody now.” [14:10]
  • “I’m 220 pounds and no fat, that’s fighting weight,” he says. “It keeps the mind in balance.” [15:16]
  • Of the cost of his famed North Broad Street gym, now closed and up for sale, Frazier asks, “Why do I have to keep digging in my pocket when you have a mayor and a governor.” [1630] [15:50],[36:05]
  • We felt that Joe’s story had not really properly been told,” director John Dower told the L.A. Times.

Check footage of Round 15 of the first battle between Frazier and Ali, which Smokin’ Joe won and is often called the best fight of their three bouts. See it here.

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