Albany Herald Sports Editor Danny Aller
I grew up with boxing as a big part of my childhood. Outside of watching every major fight that came on TV, my father boxed in the Navy and later in life would routinely work out with a heavybag at home. I can even remember many days when he would finish on the heavybag and then come inside and hit the weights while a tape of arguably the most exciting bout in boxing history -- "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler vs. Tommy "The Hit Man" Hearns -- played in the background.
That was the era of boxing I knew well -- Hagler, Hearns, Roy Jones Jr., Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis, Oscar de La Hoya ... and so on.
But just because the aforementioned guys were the ones I cheered for and followed as a kid and up until now, doesn't mean I didn't know a thing or two about boxing history.
Joe Frazier, who died late Monday from liver cancer at the age of 67, was one of those fighters who -- while I never saw any of his fights live as an up-and-coming fan during the late 1980s -- was always one of those bigger-than-life athletes you may not have had the opportunity to ever watch in person, but you knew their entire career accomplishments and failures just by being a fan of the sport. So when I got the chance to meet him in September of 2003 as the sports editor during my first gig out of college at an upstart weekly newspaper in South Florida, I couldn't believe my luck.
After all, he'd given so many fans around the world countless memories from his legendary boxing career -- highlighted by becoming the first man to beat Muhammad Ali in 1971 -- I felt honored to get a chance to shake his hand and create one of my own.
So this is my Joe Frazier story -- one my dad continues to be jealous of to this day, although he'll never admit it.
Granted, "Smokin' " Joe, as he was known, was well past his prime in 2003, and in his heyday a reporter of my significance could've never gotten close to him -- much less has the chance to conduct an interview. At this stage in his career, however, he made a living solely off his name, signing autographs, shaking hands and recounting the "Thrilla in Manila," among other famous bouts, for his fans.
My encounter happened when all media outlets within 100 miles -- via's Frazier's agent -- received an invitation to join Frazier aboard an offshore gambling cruise ship that left port in West Palm Beach, traveled a few miles out, then did circles while passengers got liquored up, gambled and chowed down on the buffet. Frazier was the guest of honor on this particular occasion because the boat was hosting "Fight Night" -- showing the Oscar De La Hoya-Shane Mosley title bout live on board, while charging $75 a person, which included a meet-and-greet with Frazier, dinner and the chance to watch the fight in an amphitheater. Not a bad deal, considering -- without a living legend being among the expected guests -- the cost just to board the ship on an average day was $25. Media members were promised between 10 and 15 minutes apiece with the "Champ," but my editor at the time suggested I sign up to go last.
It was a move that proved worth it. Frazier gave me 30 minutes of his time.
Before I got a chance to sit down with him, I remember standing in line waiting to get on the boat with all the other passengers when all of the sudden, I heard a commotion behind me, complete with several "oooohhs" and "aaaahhs" from folks standing in the terminal. When I turned around, there was Frazier in the flesh, being escorted past the crowd and onto the boat. He casually waved and nodded to those who called out, "We love you, champ!" and he made it a point to stop and shake hands with everyone who insisted on greeting him before he made it onto the boat.
Even though I knew all there was to know about his career, having not been around during the height of his fame I guess I didn't quite understand just how big a deal Frazier still was -- nearly three decades after his boxing career had ended -- until that moment.
"People sure do seem to still love him," I said to an older gentleman standing in front of me as Frazier walked past.
The man, who looked like he was old enough to have been around for many of Frazier's fights during Frazier's prime, was holding a pair of boxing gloves to be signed. He turned to me and replied, "You have no idea. The man's an American icon."
That quote, of course, later became part of my article I'd write.
Once everyone had boarded and the ship was ready to shove off, I couldn't wait to meet Frazier considering I was strictly there to work and wasn't indulging in any of the other amenities the boat had to offer. So I grabbed a coke and a seat outside of the stage where Joe was seated and waited for the throngs of people to filter through.
As I observed Frazier, who was 59 years old at this point, from afar, he seemed sadly to be a shell of the man he once was. He walked gingerly, needing assistance to get up the ramp for the boat and slightly more assistance when he climbed the steps to the stage. At times, he looked slightly confused and had trouble hearing fans who would approach and ask him questions. And, like nearly all boxers who went through a long career of being punched in the head, his speech was often slurred and mumbled.
But his fans didn't seem to mind one bit. As long as he could still smile and hold up one clinched fist next to their jaw for a photo-op, they loved every minute of it. It didn't matter that he couldn't remember details from certain fights, or seemed to grow weary during the waning stages of the meet-and-greet.
This was Smokin' Joe Frazier -- one of the greatest heavyweight champs of all-time -- and even almost 30 years after packing some of the biggest arenas in the world, he could still pack 'em in, even if it was a 1,500-person cruise ship.
I was on my fourth coke when the seemingly never-ending line finally started to fade. I'd taken as many notes and jotted down as many observations of the goings-on as I could at this point, and all that was left was to actually talk to him one-on-one. I had a list of questions two pages long, and I was pretty sure I would only to get to a third of them because of the time limit placed on the media in attendance.
Then, after waiting my turn for nearly two hours, I was finally up.
"How are you?" Joe asked me as I took a seat next to him on the stage.
"I'm good," I said as I introduced myself and told him which newspaper I was with, although I'm sure he had never heard of us. "I hate to be the last guy here to talk to you because I know you're tired, but I just want to say first of all what an honor it is to meet you and I truly appreciate the time."
Frazier laughed and replied: "Don't worry about me, son. I'm doin' fine. This is what I'm here for. As long as the fight hasn't started yet, I'm all yours until then. Wait ... has the fight started yet?"
"No, it's still a couple of hours away," I informed him. "And, I guess, that's my first question: Who ya got tonight? Oscar or Shane?"
"Oh, Oscar, of course. He should've won that first fight -- but he got robbed," said Frazier, referring to De La Hoya and Mosley's first bout in 2000 that Mosley won by split decision. "I think Oscar's out for payback tonight."
As it turned out, it's a good thing Frazier wasn't being paid to predict and analyze fights at this point in his career -- but rather was being asked to just show up to help promote them -- because De La Hoya lost again later that evening, this time by unanimous decision.
Frazier then, without being asked, went on to break down why he thought Oscar would win, which naturally shifted to him talking about his own preparation for some of the biggest fights of his career.
"They didn't give me a chance against Ali in '71," Frazier recalled at one point in our conversation. "But I showed them. Showed 'em all."
The next half hour flew by and I actually got to every one of my questions -- and then some. He may have been hard to understand at times, but he never minded repeating himself in case I didn't catch the end of a sentence. He even asked me a few questions about myself, where I wanted to go in my career and who my favorite fighter of all-time was.
"You, of course," I said with a smile.
"Good answer, my man," he told me, knowing I was blowing smoke.
Near the end of our interview, Frazier's entourage could tell the champ seemed at ease talking to me and they actually wandered away and mingled about, no longer paying us much attention. I knew I was coming to the end of our interview, but I didn't want it to end. I was searching my brain for another question to ask him that would keep him talking for another five or 10 minutes, and when there was a slight lull in the conversation, Frazier even made a joke as he watched me scan my list of questions.
"That's all?" he quipped. "You got nothing else for me?"
Just as I was about to answer, a fan popped his head into the room and asked if he was too late to get a picture signed. He explained to the woman running the meet-and-greet that he'd gotten on a "heater" at the blackjack table and couldn't leave but didn't want to miss his chance "to meet the champ."
"I think I'm all set, Mr. Frazier. I certainly appreciate you talking to me," I finally replied, before that one final question I could ask suddenly hit me. "Actually, there is one more I just thought of, if you don't mind."
"Go 'head," he said.
"Well, like right there, when the guy said he wanted to meet 'the champ.' It's been a long time since you've been a boxing champ, but does that nickname ever get old? How does it make you feel to still hear that after all these years?"
Frazier slowly stood up from his chair, extended his hand, flashed a grin and said something I'll never forget.
"I love it, man," Smokin' Joe told me before beginning to turn and walk away. "Once the champ, always the champ."