According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of art is “something that is created with imagination and skill that is beautiful or expresses important ideas or feelings.”
The late, great former heavyweight champion “Smokin’'' Joe Frazier’s honest-workman approach to boxing wasn’t particularly beautiful in the conventional sense, except maybe in the eyes of beholders who understood that the ultimate Philadelphia fighter’s signature left hook was, in its own way, an expression of important ideas and feelings.
Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. in front of XFINITY Live!, in the South Philly Sports Complex, a 12-foot statue of Frazier will be unveiled as the highlight of Joe Frazier Day. It depicts Smokin’ Joe delivering the most important punch of his Hall of Fame career, the exclamation-point hook that put Muhammad Ali down and nearly out in the 15th and final round of the first of their three classic meetings, on March 8, 1971, in New York’s Madison Square Garden. In what was immodestly but accurately dubbed “The Fight of the Century,” Frazier was awarded a unanimous decision minutes later. The statue is at once exquisite and unadorned, like the flesh-an’-blood human being who was the basis of its inspiration.
“I grew up on the street here and I wanted to capture the vibe of the city,” explained sculptor Stephen Layne, who inherited the $200,000 project after the man first commissioned for the project, Lawrence Nowlan, died at his New Hampshire home on July 30, 2013, less than a month after being awarded the coveted assignment. “That punch made me think of all the people who make pilgrimages to the Rocky statue, which shows a boxer in his glory, his hands upraised in victory.
“But for Joe Frazier, I thought it was better to have him right in the heat of battle, right in the moment. There is an instant of achievement in that pose, in what he just accomplished. He’s into the work of what he’s doing. I was always astonished, watching the tape of that fight over and over, to see Joe land that punch and then turn and just walk away. He doesn’t make a big deal of it. The best way I can put it is he had a sort of blue-collar, I-did-my-job mentality. I found that very, very interesting.”
Born in Beaufort, S.C., one of Rubin and Dolly Frazier’s 13 children, this son of dirt-poor migrant workers arrived in Philadelphia at the age of 15 with an indomitable work ethic and that hook that could demolish brick walls. He became accustomed to winning boxing matches the hard way, but Frazier, who was 67 when he died of liver cancer on Nov. 7, 2011, had no way of knowing that one of the most protracted battles involving him would come after his death and be deal with who, when and how the statue commemorating his life and career would become a reality.
In a city awash in bronzed statuary of its sports heroes, Rich Ashburn, Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, Robin Roberts, Bobby Clarke, Gary Doernhofer, Chuck Bednarik, Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving and Joey Giardello, among others, have had their images forever preserved for posterity, the delayed arrival of a proper testimonial to Frazier has long been a matter of consternation among his many admirers. It was on what would have been Frazier’s 68th birthday, on Jan. 12, 2012, that Joe Hand Sr. advised Smokin’ Joe’s daughter, Municipal Court Judge Jacquelyn Frazier-Lyde and her husband, Peter Lyde, that it was time for talk to be converted into action.
“My idea was that my family would pay for the whole thing,” said Hand, 79, an original member of Cloverlay, Inc., which financially backed Frazier’s professional boxing career after he came back from winning the heavyweight gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and remained intact until after he had lost the heavyweight title to George Foreman on Jan. 22, 1973, in Kingston, Jamaica. “I made a deal with the Cordish family (builders of XFINITY Live!) to place the statue front of what I thought was their property. Then I got a call from people with the Planning Commission and Arts Commission. It was explained to me that the Phillies, Eagles, Sixers and Flyers don’t own that ground. They hold, like, 99-year leases from the city. If I wanted to put a statue of Joe at XFINITY Live!, it had to be approved by City Hall.”
Easier said than done. “There was a lot of back-and-forth hassling,” Hand recalled, which became more convoluted when Frazier’s children, there are 11 of them, by several women, wanted input into the process. It was a classic situation of too many cooks possibly spoiling the broth.
But there was a singular purpose among backers of the project, and slowly, surely, the tangled web of red tape began to get untangled. Nowlan’s unexpected death was another setback, but Layne, a 48-year-old graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts who boxed a bit in his early 20s, was brought in and forward momentum began to build again. It helped that one of Frazier’s daughters, Weata Frazier Collins, emerged as the calm, soothing voice of the family Gang of 11.
“A number of the siblings came to my studio several times, and they all had their opinions,” Layne said. “But Weata Collins basically took the reins and was the primary liaison between me and everyone in the family. She would report back on what the siblings might think of this or that and, really, was quite nice to deal with. I’m glad I didn’t have to work with Joe’s relatives individually, not that their ideas of what they wanted would have been wrong, but it really would have slowed down the process.”
Said Collins: “There were a lot of moving parts, from the City of Philadelphia to XFINITY Live! to my family to the death of the original sculptor. We definitely had some bumps in the road, but we got through all that.”
“The first day I saw (the finished statue), tears were coming down my eyes,” Collins said. “I said, `This is beautiful. It’s perfect. It’s like it was meant to be.’”
Not that the statue, impressive thought it might be, is an end unto itself. Collins notes that, unlike Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Ky., which has constructed the multimillion-dollar Muhammad Ali Center, “there are no schools, no libraries, no streets named after my father. That’s why I started a non-profit organization at the beginning of the year entitled `The Legacy Exists.’ It’s a scholarship fund to honor my father, to make sure the younger generation knows who Joe Frazier was and what he did. My father was a fantastic father. I was a daddy’s girl and in my eyes, he could do no wrong. He will always be a hero to me.”
Smokin’ Joe also is a hero to former middleweight and light heavyweight champion Bernard Hopkins, who was one of the biggest contributors to the statue fund-raising, along with the Hands, the Cordishes and Jerry Perenchio, who promoted Ali-Frazier I.
“I believe that if you continue to push for what’s right, right will be done,” Hopkins said. “Given this man’s legacy, and what he brought to the sport of boxing and to this city, this statue had to get done. I’m glad it’s finally here. Better late than never.
“My next goal is to use some of my resources to make Joe’s Gym (now a discount furniture store (at North Broad Street) into a community center. That place is a landmark. It’s historic. Everybody should respect who Joe was, and the legacy that he left. We must keep that legacy going.”