June 26th, 2012 by Colin M Jarman
ESPN America editor Colin M Jarman reviews a moving film tribute to one the great boxers of all-time: Smokin’ Joe Frazier. Premieres on June 28th.
Growing up in the 1970s, as a sports mad kid, waiting for the latest pay-per-view fight between the greatest triumvirate of heavyweights – Frazier, Foreman & Ali [pictured above in 1994] – was anticipated almost as much as Christmas Day. Back then Boxing Day meant a whole different thing.
All three great world champions had been Olympic gold medalists and all three had lifted boxing to its highest level of competition, drama and courage. These were the days of savage fifteen-rounders and no standing eight count; when boxing legends really were legendary boxers.
Between 1971 and ’76, Smokin’ Joe Frazier fought Muhammad Ali three times, including “The Thrilla in Manila” and “The Fight of the Century” in Madison Square Garden – he lost twice. He fought George Foreman twice in two memorably brutal encounters – losing both. These would be his only losses as a pro (32-4-1 27 KOs).
Of his first fight with Frazier, in Kingston, Jamaica, Foreman has said, “People remember me knocking Joe down six times [in the first two rounds], but they forget that he kept getting up. He kept getting up!”
Joe retired from boxing in 1981. He went on to train his son, Marvis, who faced Larry Holmes in 1983 losing by TKO for the heavyweight title, and then lost to Mike Tyson by knockout in 1986.
Without Joe Frazier the myth of Muhammad Ali would be demonstrably diluted and definitely duller. Smokin’ Joe Frazier was not just one of the great boxers of the twentieth century but one of the great sporting figures. But, not great enough for some folk …
“The fictional Rocky Balboa has a statue in Philly …
but not the real Smokin’ Joe Frazier.”
How has the memory of one of the greatest and most feared heavyweight boxers in the world been overshadowed by a movie caricature? A film that used parts of Joe’s own training regime (remember the iconic ‘punching meat carcasses’ scene?) and a film that even had Joe appear in a cameo.
Joe Frazier knew the answer. And he used that feeling of being overlooked and undervalued to drive him to even greater achievements outside of the ring in helping save others who had also been overlooked and undervalued in their daily lives.
They say Philadelphia is the capital of boxing and Joe Frazier’s gym is the White House.
For over forty years, since the last of his million dollar bouts with Ali, Foreman and others, Joe’s commitment to his adopted Philadelphia neighborhood kept his landmark gym alive. Now, tragically, it has to close unless it can be saved by a preservation order as a historic building.
While Joe’s Gym remains to be saved for posterity, Joe’s life and career have been saved for ever thanks to a deeply-moving documentary film Joe Frazier: When The Smoke Clears. Produced by Riverhorse, in Manchester, England, this fine film, directed by Mike Todd, relives Joe’s rise to the undisputed heavyweight crown and his legendary fights with Ali and Foreman.
Filmed in the years leading up to his untimely passing, in November of last year, and told through the voice of son Marvis, this film reveals the story of the real Joe Frazier: from his roots in the Gullah community of rural South Carolina to becoming one of the most famous athletes of the 20th century.
Over four years in the making, Joe Frazier: When the Smoke Clears brings the sport of boxing alive, revealing its unique relationship with the Civil Rights movement and the raw consequences of a fighter’s life.
The film has a strong contemporary narrative but the story of Joe’s gym is interwoven with a sense of perspective and history, giving weight and context to what’s happening in Joe’s life and in North Philadelphia. It covers all the major events of Joe’s life and career.
But this is no ordinary biography. Joe’s early struggles lead us back to the story of the gym he runs today – part teen center part senior center. Philadelphia, with over 400 murders last year, is one of the most violent cities in America.
The film brings to life the ongoing relevance to the socio-economic issues highlighted in the era of Frazier/Ali. We see how Joe and Marvis – an ordained preacher – [pictured right in 2009] reach out to the community and the many people they have touched.
Throughout the film, key witnesses and participants share their views: from Larry Merchant and Angelo Dundee, to contemporary fighters Larry Holmes, Bernard Hopkins and George Foreman.
For show times in your region, check the local listings TV Schedule for the ESPN America premiere on June 28th and repeat showing.
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