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Rediscovering Joe Frazier Through Dave Wolf’s Eyes
Joe Frazier: photo by Holger Keifel
By Thomas Hauser
This is the first in a series of articles that will appear over time.
Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought three fights that are the pyramids of boxing. Dave Wolf was in the Frazier camp for each of them.
Dave was a gifted writer who later gained recognition as the manager of Ray Mancini and Donny Lalonde. He died last December. Three months later, his daughter and brother gave me a carton filled with file folders containing handwritten notes that detail Dave’s years in the Frazier camp.
The notes are fragments; a phrase here, a sentence there. I’ve reviewed some of them and joined Dave’s words together to form an impressionistic portrait.
Everything that follows flowed from Dave’s pen. Joe Frazier is often referenced as “JF” because that’s how Dave’s notes refer to him. For the same reason, Muhammad Ali is frequently referred to as “Clay.” As explained in the notes, “JF calls him ‘Clay.’ Knows his name is ‘Ali.’ Called him ‘Ali’ until he heard what Clay was saying about him. Now calls him Clay out of disrespect.”
In several instances, I’ve added an explanatory note to clarify a point. These clarifications are contained in brackets.
I don’t agree with everything in Dave’s notes. Some of it runs counter to views I’ve expressed in Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times and other works I’ve written. What I can vouch for is that this article is faithful to Dave’s contemporaneous recording of the relationship between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier as seen through Joe’s eyes.
* * *
Born in Beaufort, South Carolina, on January 12, 1944 . . . Grew up rural poor. Quit school in ninth grade . . . Married Florence Smith at age sixteen . . . Lived in Brooklyn and Philadelphia . . . Worked in slaughterhouse; took home $125 a week.
Frustrated by poverty . . . Starts boxing in 1962 . . . 1964 Olympic gold medal.
Post-Olympic problems . . . Hand operation . . . No help from Olympic committee . . . Cold Christmas . . . Father dies.
Turns pro on own . . . Modest goals. Some material things. Wanted to be important. Believed he’d become somebody.
Others doubt his potential . . . Not a natural athlete . . . Small compared to past heavyweight champs.
Likes to fight . . . Fighting style like his personality . . . Hit often but doesn’t mind. Doesn’t feel most punches. High pain threshold. Accepts punishment as part of job.
Formation of Cloverlay to back him . . . Embarrassed at times by lack of education. Problems with public speaking. Called Cloverlay a “cooperation” at first press conference.
Has been a drinker in past. Knows little about drugs.
Spartan training camp regardless of fight . . . Roadwork at 4:00 AM . . . Brutal training routine. Punishes body.
JF: “I love to work.”
Can’t understand sparring partners’ lack of desire . . . Eats and lives with them. Pushes them hard. Only the tough last.
Gambling with sparring partners as diversion; mostly loses. Doesn’t understand odds. Fleeced by crooked dice.
Yank Durham is great manager and friend. Yank succeeds because he wins JF’s complete unquestioning dedication and trust.
JF: “I still remember the look on Florence’s face [Joe’s wife] when I told her about no sex before fights. Imagine the look on my face when Yank told me.”
JF liked Clay at first. Understands how others like him.
JF: “I liked his humor and style. Till I got to know him, I admired him a lot; so it’s not hard for me to see why others do.”
When Clay first switched to Muslims, JF thought he was sincere. Knew little about the religion. Shared many racial feelings.
JF: “You feel more comfortable when you’re around your own people. I don’t care who you are. That’s the life you know. When you’re around them, you can say little bad words. You can call each other niggers and everything else. You can talk that talk. When you’re around a mixed crowd of people, white and black, you got to be careful.”
Always, JF ambition was to beat Clay. From first pro fight, training for him . . . Watched Clay’s fights on TV with Yank. Imagined self in ring. Always felt he would win.
Upset by Clay’s treatment of Patterson . . . JF: “I feel like, why take advantage of a great champ. Once, he was a great champion. And if you’re gonna knock the man out, go ahead and knock him out. You don’t suffer people, especially a good athlete. After seeing him playing around with Patterson, I felt like I could straighten that out. Why pick on somebody like that? Try me.”
Watched Clay-Mildenberger. Not impressed.
Watched Clay-Williams in theater. Felt sorry for Williams . . . JF: “Why that fight allowed?”
Yank moved and matched JF perfectly. Protected him from too much pressure.
First Bonavena fight a problem. JF disdainfully overconfident; forced fight but careless. Floored lunging in by sneaky right. Floored again; in danger of losing by three knockdowns. Still aggressive. Split decision. Most writers had JF a clear winner. JF thought he’d lost fight. Most impressive: ability to get off the canvas. Durham furious. JF held hands low and didn’t bob and slip. JF realizes things had gotten too complacent; thought he couldn’t be hurt.
Doug Jones fight. Left hook in sixth, Jones hanging on ropes. JF might have killed him but held up punch. Jones fell, unconscious for two minutes.
George Chuvalo fight . . . JF: “Joe Louis picked against me. I was a little upset when I heard. But Yank said, ‘You got to realize, they brought him in for publicity. The Garden tells him who to pick. They pay him. He needs the work.’ I was surprised why a man like him go through these scenes. Seems like a man could stand up for what he believe and not have to choose who somebody else say. I always thought, if I could be like Joe Louis, I’d have it made. Thinking about it was depressing.”
JF [on being shaken by George Chuvalo before knocking him out]: “It’s a feeling that, if you get up in the morning and raise up out of the bed; you not fully awake and you not giving your blood time enough to circulate through your body; everything is not quite together yet and you fall back on the bed, tired. It’s not pain; it’s just that everything isn’t quite focused. It’s a little hazy or something. It’s like a TV where the thing is a little out of focus and you think you ought to mess with the focus dial a little bit.”
JF [on the party after the Chuvalo fight]: “I got to the party and my mom was there. I came over and hugged her. She was smiling but I could see she looked uneasy.
JF: “How’d you like that?”
Mother: “I was yelling at the referee to stop my son from killing that man.”
JF: “Mom, that’s the fighting game.”
Mother: “The man was bleeding. You could have killed him.”
JF: “Mom, you should have been hollering for me, not him.”
Mother: “Well, I seen you was all right.”
JF: “I felt a little sad that she wasn’t happy like I felt. It would have been better if she’d just come to visit without seeing the fight. She’d never seen me act like that before. I felt she must be thinking, ‘My son has become a killer’. I got the feeling she wouldn’t want to see too many more fights.”
First meeting with Clay. In Madison Square Garden basement. Clay sparring for Folley fight. Joe in ring for picture session. Clay condescending; mocks Joe’s suspenders.
JF disappointed when Clay was stripped of title for refusing induction. Wanted to win title from him. Had worked three years for shot at Clay. Felt Clay shouldn’t lose title except in ring. Didn’t want to capitalize on Clay’s misfortune.
Respected Clay’s draft stand. Believed a man should stand up for his religious beliefs . . . While most press and even many blacks attacked Clay early, Joe often defended Clay in street arguments. Argued with Yank about him.
WBA sanctions eight-man tournament for championship . . . Durham convinces Cloverlay to pass up tournament. Didn’t like fixed money; $50,000-$75,000-$125,000 for three fights. Doesn’t want so many risky fights. Frazier angered by Yank’s decision. Later sees it was correct.
WBA dropped Frazier from #2 to #9. Jimmy Ellis won WBA title.
Joe knocks out Buster Mathis to win New York State championship at Madison Square Garden.
JF: “I knew I’d never feel like the champ till I beat Clay in the ring.”
Clay moved to Philadelphia . . . JF met doing roadwork . . . Clay seemed down and out. Said he had financial problems. Unable to leave U.S. to fight. Unable to get license to fight in U.S. Buried by legal fees and alimony problems . . . Muslims wouldn’t loan him money. Told Joe his friends and supporters had abandoned him. Very depressed.
Beginning of strange relationship that existed during next few years . . . JF felt sorry for Clay. Wanted to help Clay because black brother . . . Once joined Clay at mosque.
Contact during next few years mostly by phone. Got to know Clay better.
One time, JF teased Clay about car. Felt bad when Clay seemed embarrassed.
Phone conversation: Clay said he wished he’d gone in Army. Said he’d been misled; lawyers told him he’d get off easy.
JF began to wonder about Clay’s relationship with Muslims . . . Clay seemed trapped . . . Joe convinced Muslims are phony. Learned hypocrisy of leaders . . . No longer respected Nation of Islam. Impressed they are anti-drug and for black business. Respects their pride in blackness. But feels they are hypocrites. Their ministers don’t practice what they preach. Leaders live in luxury; followers are poor. They are violent, even against each other. They use the black movement and the little man as a front.
Clay asked JF for publicity . . . “Don’t leave me out here alone.” . . . Said he didn’t care what name JF used. Joe originally used “Ali” and “Clay” interchangeably. Joe asked what name he wanted: “I don’t care. Call me nigger.”
Chance meeting. Joe doing roadwork in Fairmont Park. Clay suggested mock fight. Joe rejected: “I don’t go for crap.”
Yank and Clay press Joe to knock Clay. Joe reluctant. Really, nothing against each other . . . Clay encourages . . . Joe doesn’t like it but goes along. Inner suspicion Clay will turn on him and “use this stuff on me” . . . But dismisses idea: “He’s a brother and a religious man.” Assumes Clay will eventually defuse phony feud.
JF calls Clay “un-American” . . . Not true feelings. Believed much Clay said was valid. Joe opposed Vietnam war . . . “It does no good” . . . He opposed killing. People assumed opposite because he was Clay’s rival . . . Didn’t speak out against war because he knows little and doesn’t presume to tell others.
JF agrees to series of staged confrontations with Clay.
PAL 23rd Street Gym in Philadelphia. Joe got angry at “real champ” taunts. Police called.
Mike Douglas taping, next day. Clay friendly in private. Joe asks him before show to “cool it” . . . On set, Clay whispers “hold me” and starts scene. Joe angry.
Cheetah in New York City, next night. Joe invited Clay into dressing room . . . “But cut the shit.” . . . Clay beats on and breaks door. Joe angry. Disliked surprise scenes.
Joe tiring of Clay’s act . . . “He’s like a little kid that can’t stop.” . . . Dislikes role that has so many blacks down on him. Frustrated that people, especially blacks, appear to be against him and for Clay . . . Complained to Yank: “It’s making us look bad” . . . Yank dismissed: “Don’t worry; there’s no harm.” . . . Yank saw big money down the road.
Frazier reputation growing. Perceived as legitimate opponent for Clay.
Regardless of rivalry, Yank not convinced Joe is ready. Bruce Wright [Frazier’s attorney] told Joe he could avoid Clay: “You don’t have to fight him. He won’t get a license if you say you won’t fight him. Clay is finished if you say ‘no’.”
Joe always said “yes.” When promoters or writers called about Clay, Joe said he would fight him. At banquets, told [New York State Athletic Commission chairman] Dooley and [Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission chairman] Wildman that he wanted them to license Clay.
JF victories over Manuel Ramos, Oscar Bonavena [rematch], and Dave Zyglewicz.
June 1969, Joe training for Quarry fight . . . Yank told Bruce Wright, “Joe’s ready for Clay.”
Movement to get Clay-Frazier . . . Yank had kept contact and had good relationship with Herbert Muhammad [Ali’s manager]. Yank and Herbert agreed to 50-50 split.
Series of false alarms . . . Murray Woroner offer, $1.2 million [for Ali-Frazier fight] in Tampa or Orlando. Vigorous political and veterans opposition . . . Astrodome offer. Roy Hofheinz promises governor will license. Contracts sent to Texas. Hofheinz admits governor wouldn’t go along. Deal killed by Texas politics . . . Joe met with Detroit promoters at Yank’s house. Clay parties at meeting. Contract signed. Nothing happens.
Joe began to doubt fight would take place. Yank pessimistic. Convinced Clay going to jail. Bruce Wright to Harry Markson [president of Madison Square Garden boxing]: “Get Ellis.”
Eddie Futch comes in to help train JF for Ellis fight. Much to Yank’s credit, he accepted Futch. Delicate situation. Futch importance grows. Works well with Yank. Futch did the fine-tuning.
JF destroys Jimmy Ellis, KO 5.
Prospects for Ali fight brightened as mood of nation changed . . . Campaigns of Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy . . . Cambodia, Kent State . . . Feelings grew against war . . . Much draft resistance. Ali stayed while others fled . . . Ali an athlete whose battle to avoid military service transformed him into a kind of folk hero.
Clay license for Atlanta . . . Boxes exhibition . . . Fights Quarry in Atlanta. Treated like conquering hero . . . Clay licensed in New York . . . Beats Bonavena. Frazier unimpressed, feared Clay might lose.
Now JF knows Clay fight inevitable if Clay doesn’t go to jail first . . . Wanted Clay bad . . . People bugged him on street, reporters’ questions.
Negotiations for fight, simmering for several months, boil. Ante rising fast. Clearly headed for richest purse in history . . . Garden offered $1.3 million; Astrodome offered $1.3 million . . .Yank, Herbert, and Arum pushing for Houston. Bruce Wright suspicious; felt offer too low. Frazier not aware of specific negotiations.
Series of meetings in Arum’s office. Jesse Jackson roughly rebutted. Christmas coming when Bruce Wright calls Joe and says it looks like something about to happen . . . Jerry Perenchio offer; $2.5 million for each fighter. Fight set for Madison Square Garden.
Nation polarizing . . . Ali becoming hero of left and Frazier hero of right . . . Clay escalates feud to unsettle Frazier for fight . . . JF: “It got out of control .”
JF hurt by Clay’s better ability to communicate to white press . . . JF becomes symbol of Ali’s oppression. Clay trying to make him appear enemy of black people.
JF becoming aware of unpopularity with blacks. Began to find self perceived as “Uncle Tom.” Unfair but inevitable.
JF: “Clay is a phony. He never worked. He never had a job. He don’t know nothing about life for most black people. He talks out both sides of his mouth. Doesn’t act as he preaches. Lies to the public. Gets people riled up. Exploits race problems and real black pride. No real minister would act that way.”
Clay issues more inflammatory quotes. JF hurt and surprised when he intensifies insults. Real dislike growing.
JF often teased in street . . . Reaction to being called ugly.
JF: “Black people are ashamed of me. They don’t know what I’m really like.”
JF thought Clay liked him . . . JF: “He never did. He wants to be bigger than everyone else, so he tries to make them small. Even when we signed to fight, he still looked down on me as nothing. I’m his black brother, but he used me.”
Night before the fight. Joe tense, didn’t sleep . . . Believes he’ll win, but will feel no shame if he loses.
In dressing room before fight, Futch is calm center of storm.
Joe beats Clay in the most famous fight of all time. Knockdown, unanimous decision, little press disagreement. JF says afterward, “He’s the greatest I ever fought.”
Traditionally, fighters who achieve great victory allowed to enjoy acclaim that goes with it. Loser treats winner with respect of fellow athlete, even if momentary controversy or rivalry very intense.
JF victory tarnished. . . . Ali attacks Frazier after fight: “I didn’t lose the fight. The white people said I lost it.” . . . Spends next two years trying to diminish JF victory. Occasionally admitted he lost. But most often, in public, claimed he had won; that fight was “stolen” for “political reasons.”
Period of title not as pleasant for JF as might have been. Clay attacks make victory appear suspect. JF not fully appreciated as a fighter or a man.
JF: “Clay was responsible for my time as champion not being as happy as it could have been.”
What it’s like to be champ: People awed. Everyone recognizes you, feels it’s an honor to be in your presence. JF visits Nixon at White House. Invited to speak before South Carolina legislature. Requests to appear on major TV shows. Marvels at how far he has come.
JF setting stage for losing title. Too involved with being champ. Demands on time.
Relationship with Yank changed. Not together as often. Joe more assertive.
JF much too involved with music group, Joe Frazier and the Knockouts. Argued with Yank over music. Yank caved . . . Bad reviews for group. European tour bombs.
Yank privately hurt by Joe. But Yank had changed also. Much more abrasive and self-important. Decided secretly that Joe should avoid tough fights. Didn’t tell Joe, who thought no contender would fight him.
For 22 months, no tough fights . . . Two overmatched opponents, Terry Daniels and Ron Stander . . . JF didn’t work as hard. Overweight for both fights. Put less pressure on opponents, not doubling up. Wins came too easily.
Eddie Futch saw changes in Joe. Tried to tell him. Can’t when still winning. JF feeling invincible.
JF: “I lay my hands on and they fall.”
JF: “Nobody can knock me out.”
Joe decides he wants to fight George Foreman . . . Loses in two rounds.
Dealing with defeat . . . “The former heavyweight champion of the world.”
Back to the drawing board . . . JF gives up most outside activity. Draws closer to Yank. Happy in training . . . Decision over Joe Bugner in London.
August 1973; Yank dies.
Eddie Futch takes over
Negotiations for Clay II . . . Fight made.
JF feelings about Clay had mellowed . . . Thought attacks were over . . . Clay escalates feud, stirs racial issue again.
Joe cries in back of car . . . Still not accepted or understood by many blacks . . . Many painful incidents . . . Hassled by people in street.
JF: “We’ll never get along. I got the best of him in ring, but he caused a lot of my own people to turn on me.”
Joe bothered by lack of formal schooling. Can’t read.
JF: “Clay goes out of his way to mock my education. Makes this image of me that I’m dumb and ugly. I don’t think this guy have any kind of feeling for anybody. Maybe his wife and his kids. But general people, I don’t think so.”
Problems in training . . . Joe misses Yank . . . Inconsistent and unimpressive in gym. Up too high, taking too many rights . . . Complaining about sore shoulder and other aches, lingering cold.
Studio brawl when Clay calls Joe “ignorant.”
Joe increasingly paranoid, restless . . . Self-doubts without Yank . . . Futch admits JF uptight too soon; fears JF losing confidence in him.
On fight night, dressing room too chaotic . . . Confusion on exit time. JF warms up twice.
First fight without Yank . . . Clay wins unanimous decision.
Clay beats Foreman to regain championship.
JF: “I admire him regaining the title. He KO’d the man who KO’d me.”
Ali-Frazier III in Manila.
Pre-fight, Ali labels Joe a gorilla.
JF: “Every once in a while, the ugliness that’s behind that cocky smile sees the sunshine . . . Clay is a phony and a hypocrite who uses people, mostly his own people . . . He must be bigger than anyone else or he tries to make them smaller.”
Wanted to actually kill Clay in ring, hated him so much.
[Ali-Frazier III was contested on the outskirts of Manila at 10:45 AM on October 1, 1975]
Evening of September 29 . . . Joe on king-sized bed, watching TV, running fingers over guitar strings . . . “One day, I’m gonna learn how to play this thing.”
Ali on TV, predicting, “The first combination, he will fall.”
JF: He’s still trying to make himself believe. But it’s too late, way too late. I got the noose around that cat’s neck.”
TV coverage of Ali workout . . . JF hand tightens around handle of guitar when Ali jokes, “Joe’s so ugly, when he was a baby and cried, the tears turned around and ran back up his face into his eyes.”
Commentator in ring with Ali says, “He calls you ‘Clay’ because he can’t spell ‘Muhammad.’” . . . JF face clouds and he shakes his head silently . . . “Shut it off.”
September 30 . . . JF up at 3:30 AM. Walks one mile . . . Back in room, pulls off boots, strips to underwear, pours alcohol on chest, lets it run down . . . Discusses letters he’s getting from Christians.
JF: “They say don’t worry about the fight. God will take care of everything . . . That’s cool. When the bell ring, I’ll just sit on the stool and say, ‘Okay, God; take over.’ . . . Maybe I better not take no chances. I’ll do a little fighting too.”
Takes a nap. Sleeps till 10:30 AM . . . Stays in room playing blackjack most of afternoon . . . Face grim.
Lies on bed, watches TV . . . The Flying Nun and Porky Pig . . . Chewing gum, cracking it.
At 5:30, JF eats fried fish, peas, and rice
Florence comes into room and sits by bed . . . Florence sacrifices. JF doesn’t always appreciate her . . . JF and Florence have long quiet talk . . . Florence leaves.
JF: “Florence been sacrificing for years to make things happen for me. When we got married, we was so poor, she needed her sister’s ring. Now she’s got her own Cadillac.”
8:10 PM: JF shuts off light, goes to sleep.
October 1, 1975 . . . Joe leaves room at 7:15 AM . . . Wearing green shirt, beige slacks, brown suspenders . . . Siren wailing . . . Arrives at arena . . . Sits on red couch.
7:45 AM. Ali-Frazier III in three hours . . . JF lays back with head on red pillow, closes eyes, and sleeps.
* * *
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Muhammad Ali has always defied expectations. In the 1960s, he was one of the most loved and hated men in America. Then he became a symbol of good will and courage, embraced by the world.
Now a new wave of revisionism is influencing how people think about Ali. Several high-profile books and documentaries have emphasized Muhammad’s shortcomings and the less attractive aspects of his make-up (such as the cruelties he visited upon Joe Frazier). Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, those with a financial interest in Ali’s name and likeness have blurred his past (often obscuring his revolutionary acts and utterances) for economic gain.
I won’t defend Ali’s treatment of Joe Frazier. It was wrong. I will say, as I’ve said many times before, that Muhammad Ali in the 1960s stood as a beacon of hope for oppressed people all over the world. Every time he looked in the mirror and uttered the phrase, "I’m so pretty," he was saying "black is beautiful" before it became fashionable. When he refused induction into the United States Army, he stood up to armies around the globe in support of the proposition that, unless you have a very good reason for killing people, war is wrong.
Nelson Mandela later declared, “Ali’s refusal to go to Vietnam and the reasons he gave made him an international hero. The news could not be shut out even by prison walls. He became a real legend to us in prison."
As for African-Americans, Reggie Jackson put the matter in perspective when he said, “Do you have any idea what Ali meant to black people? He was the leader of a nation; the leader of black America. As a young black, at times I was ashamed of my color; I was ashamed of my hair. And Ali made me proud. I’m just as happy being black now as somebody else is being white, and Ali was part of that growing process. Ali helped raise black people in this country out of mental slavery. The entire experience of being black changed for millions of people because of Ali."
Joe Frazier was an unnecessary casualty of that era.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com. His most recent book (“The Boxing Scene”) was published this year by Temple University Press.