If you cover boxing long enough, you’re apt to see a lot of strange stuff, and I have. A riot following a foul-filled disqualification where tensions between the opposing fan bases ran high (the first of two Riddick Bowe-Andrew Golota bouts, on July 11, 1996, in Madison Square Garden). A motorized white parachutist nearly landing in the ring and then being pummeled by walkie-talkie-wielding bodyguards for Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan during a heavyweight title bout (the middle episode of the three-fight Bowe-Evander Holyfield trilogy, on Nov. 6, 1993, at Las Vegas’ Caesars Palace). And, perhaps most notably, a part of a heavyweight champion’s ear being gnawed off by his toothy opponent (the infamous “pay-per-chew” bout where an enraged and unhinged Mike Tyson went after Holyfield’s ear as if it were a filet mignon in their June 28, 1997, rematch at the MGM Grand in Vegas).
But there are other, less-high profile matches where the sights and sounds would seem to come straight out of the fertile imagination of Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone. Some of them I was able to chronicle for readers of my media outlet of the moment. But one, I wasn’t. Until now.
Inspired by the side journeys taken by my TSS colleague, Ted Sares, down some of boxing’s darker streets, the most recent being his mesmerizing profile of fighter-turned-Mafioso hit man Joe Barboza, I figure it’s time to finally tell the story of the last professional fight of the son of a renowned heavyweight champion, a group of peeved and tattooed bikers, a beer-and-mustard-splashed television cameraman and a harried referee trying to kick hot dogs out of the ring even as the principals continued to pound away at one another amid the edible debris.
It all really happened the night of Oct. 27, 1988, in the sparsely attended Tucson Convention Center in Tucson, Ariz. I would have loved to have written about it, too, for the amusement and edification of readers of my newspaper, the Philadelphia Daily News, except for a directive from the sports desk back in Philly to under no circumstances write more than my allotted 14 column inches because of space limitations. Faced with a quandary of choosing which way to go – telling the tale of the bikers, beer-soaked cameraman, hot dogs frantically kicked away by referee Ron Meyers and, oh, yes, round card girl who had ducked underneath the press table and nearly had her chin in my lap – I decided to devote those 14 inches to a straight report of what proved to be the final ring appearance by Marvis Frazier, son of the great “Smokin’” Joe Frazier (his trainer and chief cornerman), in which Marvis won a close and somewhat uneventful 10-round unanimous decision over Philipp Brown, a decently skilled journeyman with an impressive record.
To this day, I continue to wonder if I made the right call. But like Ted Sares, able to rummage through the attic of a lifetime of memories and come up with dusty gems like the one on Barboza, a good and true yarn told late is better than one never told at all.
Marvis Frazier, who turns 57 on Sept. 10, has unfortunately and unfairly been given short shrift as a boxer because he bore the heavy burden of forever being compared to his legendary father. But Marvis was the best and most accomplished male descendant of the fighting Fraziers’ family tree, a list that includes heavyweight Rodney Frazier, son of Joe’s sister Rebecca; super middleweight Mark Frazier, son of Joe’s brother Tom, and junior welterweight Hector Frazier, another of Joe’s sons who campaigned as “Joe Frazier Jr.” And although he was not a blood relative, some might recall that Tyrone Mitchell Frazier, a protégé of Smokin’ Joe who claimed to be the great man’s nephew (with his tacit approval), once traveled to Bismarck, North Dakota, to challenge WBA light heavyweight titlist Virgil Hill. Although he lost a wide unanimous decision, the faux Frazier kin managed to go the distance. Also trying her hand at her dad’s demanding profession was Joe’s daughter, Jacqui “Sister Smoke” Frazier-Lyde, who went 13-1 with nine KOs and whose only loss was a majority decision against fellow celebrity daughter Laila Ali. Frazier-Lyde is now a municipal court judge in Philadelphia.
As an amateur trained by future Hall of Famer George Benton and Val Colbert, Marvis compiled an impressive 56-2 record, winning the 1999 National Golden Gloves title as a heavyweight. A bit taller than Joe at 6-0½, he was the spitting image of his father with one notable exception – he was more of a technician, a strong jabber with a solid defense, his more conservative style reflecting the values espoused by Benton, whose pupils included such accomplished champions as Evander Holyfield, Pernell Whitaker and Meldrick Taylor.
Upon turning pro, however, Marvis – whose devotion to Joe was absolute, with that deep and abiding affection clearly returned in kind – turned his career over to his pop, whose method of training was to instruct all of his fighters to fight just as he had, always boring in and firing left hooks. The only problem was that Marvis might have had the right genes for such a sudden transformation, but was otherwise a poor fit to undergo a radical makeover.
Although Marvis earned a world rating, went 19-2 with eight victories inside the distance, several of his successes coming against such accomplished heavyweights as James Broad, Joe Bugner, Bernard Benton, James “Quick” Tillis and future WBA heavyweight champ James “Bonecrusher” Smith, he is best known for his two defeats – one-round blowouts against WBC heavyweight king Larry Holmes (Marvis was just 10-0 when he got a title shot he clearly was unprepared for) on Nov. 25, 1983, and a fast-rising force of nature in the big-man division, Mike Tyson, on July 26, 1986, in Glen Falls, N.Y. Tyson nearly decapitated the younger Frazier with a ripping right uppercut in the opening seconds of that bout, and connected with a couple of unnecessary follow-up shots as Marvis was sliding to the canvas. Elapsed time: 31 seconds, the fastest win recorded by Tyson in a career liberally dotted with quickies.
Prior to Marvis’ ill-fated go at Tyson, observer Lou Duva told New York Times boxing writer Phil Berger how and why he expected Frazier the Younger to fail.
“He’s a stubborn, opinionated guy. But a good guy,” Duva said of Joe. “But the question is does he book his fighters’ matchers from here (tapping his heart) or here (tapping his head). Who’s fighting the fight: Joe Frazier or his fighter? He’d like them to fight as good as Joe Frazier could. But there’s only one Joe Frazier.”
It appeared that the creeping realization he could never quite fill his Pop’s shoes that made Marvis’ fight against the 6-3, 218¼-pound Brown (Marvis actually outweighed the taller man by three-quarters of a pound) of special interest to followers of both Fraziers. Rumors already were beginning to circulate that Marvis’ heart had gone out of his impossible quest to join Joe at the top of the heavyweight mountain, and that the Brown fight might be his final appearance in the ring.
I was already booked for a somewhat extended trip out West – Thomas Hearns was to square off against James “The Heat” Kinchen for the vacant WBO super middleweight crown on Nov. 4, at the Las Vegas Hilton, with Sugar Ray Leonard taking on Donny Lalonde for Lalonde’s WBC light heavyweight title as well as the vacant WBC super middleweight belt three days later at Caesars Palace – so why not, I suggested to my executive sports editor, Mike Rathet, let me head to Tucson a few days earlier for Frazier-Brown, which could have significant implications for the Philadelphia fight scene? Rathet said OK, so off I went
Frazier-Brown was not the main event – former WBC featherweight champion Juan LaPorte’s defense of his NABF super featherweight belt against Lupe Miranda was – but Marvis’ fight was the opening half of a regionally televised doubleheader. It was the delayed arrival of a determined and hardy cameraman that set the stage for the (mostly) off-TV drama that helped nudge Frazier-Brown, at least to on-site spectators who knew what was going on, into a production of the theater of the absurd.
Seated directly behind one of the neutral corners were several biker types, perhaps mistakenly identified as such by their full beards, bandanas, wide array of tattoos and apparel that suggested all were members of the same motorcycle club. They were obviously fight fans, and no one could dispute that they were enjoying the action during the non-televised undercard bouts. But their collective mood grew surlier as the cameraman mounted the ring apron for Frazier-Brown, blocking their view. And by the time two of their buddies returned from the concession stand with cardboard trays laden with cups of beer and hot dogs, the situation seemingly was heading toward critical mass. Concession items don’t come cheaply, but that didn’t stop the biker guys from dousing the cameraman with beer and pelting him with frankfurters. The poor guy had mustard in his hair and he smelled like a brewery. All this happened just a few yards away from where I was sitting as one of just two members on press row (the other was a young guy from the Arizona Daily Star) and the round-card girls, who weren’t digging developments.
Apparently unaware of what was going on outside the ropes,Marvis and Brown were fighting their way toward the problem area. Across the way, a phalanx of rent-a-cops (arena security guards, not regular police) was forming to confront the bikers. One of the round-card girls, anticipating Armageddon, had crawled under the press table without properly introducing herself to me despite our sudden proximity. The referee, Meyers, had the unenviable task of trying to follow the give-and-take between Marvis and Brown while kicking the hot dogs away, as if he were practicing field goals. When I watched the YouTube replay of the fight on Thursday night, Meyers’ fancy footwork is clearly visible, although the TV commentators chose not to mention why hot dogs had made their way onto the canvas or why the cameraman appeared to have shampooed with yellow mustard.
Fortunately, because of the far-from-capacity crowd, an arena official offered to move the biker guys to comparable seats where their view would be unobstructed. They agreed to move, avoiding a confrontation that the rent-a-cops and at least one round-card girl were fervently hoping would never advance beyond the theoretical.
The postfight interviews – Marvis prevailed on the scorecards by margins of 96-94 (despite being docked a point in the sixth round by Meyers for low blows), 96-95 and 95-94 – stuck to the straight and narrow. “He ain’t bruised, he ain’t bumped, so let’s go,” said Joe, who seemingly was anxious for Marvis to fight again as soon as possible. “This game is for hit men only. What Marvis needs is to get right back to the gym. If he’s going to fight, he needs to fight.”
For his part, Marvis expressed the same eagerness to keep on keeping on. “I need the work,” he said. “If it was up to me, I’d fight every three or four weeks … enough to get my sharpness back.”
Seven months after edging Brown, Marvis had yet to fight again, although he never did get around to formally announcing a retirement. It wasn’t until many years later, long past the point where he might have considered a comeback, that he acknowledged the obvious. “Pop said when it starts feeling like a job, do something else,” he said. “It started feeling like a job. You got to know when to get out of the game. It didn’t feel like I was there. The spirit left me.”
At various times, Marvis also repeated the mantra that had originated with Joe about why the fight game isn’t for everybody, and shouldn’t be unless there is a full commitment to the demanding task at hand. “You can get your brain shook, your money took and your name in the undertaker’s book,” both Fraziers noted.
Joe, beset with physical problems, was 67 when passed away on Nov. 7, 2011. His memorial service was attended by 3,500 admirers, including Muhammad Ali, Don King, Jesse Jackson and other notables. Marvis became an ordained preacher, ministering to prison inmates and also working as a security guard. Forever the dutiful son, he never questioned the wisdom, or lack thereof, of Joe’s tinkering with the style that had made him so successful in the amateur ranks. Few fighters have lived their lives with as much class and dignity as he has.
I couldn’t track down Meyers for his memories of what had to be the most unusual in his abbreviated, 20-bout refereeing career. He worked only one more bout after Frazier-Brown. And speaking of Brown, who entered the ring that night in Tucson with a 31-2-2 (18) record, the loss to Marvis was the first in a streak of 10 consecutive defeats to close out his career, although no one can accuse him of looking for soft touches; some of the guys who beat him down the stretch included Riddick Bowe, Jorge Luis Gonzalez, Mike “Hercules” Weaver, Johnny Du Plooy, Pierre Coetzer, James Broad and Joe Hipp. The attractive round-card girl who crawled under the press table very well might be a grandma by now, telling the kiddies her own version of what happened the night of Oct. 22, 1988, and the bikers’ beards likely have gone gray as they now park their posteriors in rocking chairs instead of on the seats of Harley-Davidsons.
Boxing, like life, rolls on like a river to the sea. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something comes along that breaks new ground. Sometimes, that ground even is covered with hot dogs.
Editor’s Note: Joe Frazier stands between Marvis Frazier and the late James Shuler in this 1980 photo.
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