Remembering a Real Philly Hero

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By Michael Isom
In 1976, the movie Rocky hit the big screen and a hero was born. The film showed the heart and soul of Philadelphia pride and the blue collar style of being a fighter who works hard until the very end.
The sad thing is that the hero representing these noble values is a fictional character. A true hero is the man who really was the heavyweight champion who represented Philadelphia in the ring as himself and who showed the world what hard work, dedication and Philly heart is all about.
The man I am referring to is the late “Smokin” Joe Frazier. Joe Frazier had the greatest left hook in boxing history and was the greatest heavyweight to fight from Philadelphia. Check out his record of 37 fights, of which he won 32 — 27 by knock out!
In 1970, Frazier won the heavyweight title by fighting Jimmy Ellis, who he knocked down twice in the 4th round, something that had never happened before in Ellis’ career. Frazier became the World Boxing Association (WBA) Heavyweight Champion and kept his title until 1973.
During his reign as champion, Joe Frazier got into the ring with Muhammad Ali in 1971. Ali returned to the ring after a three-year absence, his boxing license having been revoked for his refusal to be drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. Ali used these politics to push Frazier to the edge. On the night of their standoff, it was skill, will, and hatred that made for what was simply called “The fight of the century.”
Joe Frazier looked like a machine designed to do nothing but fight. In the 11th round, he hurt Ali badly and in the 15th, he knocked Ali down with a great left hook that left Ali’s jaw looking like he was chewing on a baseball.
At the end of the night, Frazier had won a unanimous decision, becoming the first man to ever beat the self-proclaimed “greatest of all time”, Muhammad Ali. Frazier eventually lost his title to George Foreman, the hardest puncher in boxing history, in a fight lasting only two rounds. He went on to lose two rematches with Muhammad Ali including the “thrilla in minilla”, the most epic trilogy of fights in heavyweight history.
With all his accomplishments, Frazier should be getting respect in the boxing world, especially in Philadelphia. Sadly, only after Frazier’s death have there been plans made to erect a statue in his honor. An almost eerie irony is that the sculptor chosen to create the statue, Larry Nowlan, passed away at age 48 shortly after he was given the assignment.
It all seems too little too late anyway. It is the right thing to do, but it should have been done years ago. I am disappointed in my city for what they have done to the legacy of Smokin’ Joe.
The fact that the statue of Rocky Balboa, which appeared in the third and fifth Rocky movies, is perceived as a symbol of Philadelphia’s heart is a disgrace. To add to the insult, Joe Frazier’s Gym is now partially a discount furniture store. The gym is still intact and Frazier’s name can still be seen on the dilapidated storefront. A flashy sign above reads knock out prices, a marketing ploy using the nationally recognized historic landmark for financial gain. The gym is a symbolic reminder of how Joe Frazier epitomized Philly sportsmanship.
If Mayor Nutter has even an ounce of decency he will make sure Joe gets his statue and his gym made into what it rightfully should be: a historical landmark to represent Philly sports and fighting spirit. Frazier, like many artists have only been honored posthumously.
When it came to being a warrior of boxing who painted beautiful displays of courage, and fighting spirit in the ring. Frazier has two legacies. First, he is a great example that hard work and passion are not always recognized and rewarded like they should be in life. The other Legacy which I want to remember Joe Frazier by is he was not only what Philly boxing and sports is all about but he was what being a man and being a fighter in life is all about. He was a very kind and respectful man, but the night he knocked down Ali, he stood over him.
Joe Frazier is a reminder that when life gives you big challenges, take everything you have and knock them down. I think Joe Frazier should be given a lot more love in the city that prides itself on brotherly love, and I hope I have given him the type of respect and homage I feel he derives and that he wanted and never totally got. Joe Frazier has earned more than to just be forgotten in the city where his spirit should live on forever.
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Remembering a Real Philly Hero