Growing up as a boy in the South Carolina Low Country, I was, like all of my friends, a Smokin’ Joe fan.
Frazier, the son of a Beaufort, South Carolina sharecropper and one of twelve children, had a big heart both inside and outside of the ring.
At the age of twelve, he told his siblings that he would one day be the Heavyweight Champion of the World. They laughed at their younger brother, Joe. Frazier, working on his dad’s farm, took an old burlap sack, filled it with straw and made his own punching bag.
At the age of fifteen, “the Champ” left South Carolina and headed north. A few years later he would soon be working in a Philadelphia meat packing house, hitting the slabs of beef with his fists as he would move them into the freezer. Sound familiar? Joe would, of course, go on to win an Olympic Gold Medal and later become the undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World.
Joe Frazier loved his country and was proud to be an American. Joe was also proud, too, of his South Carolina roots and that he was able to help his mom out in later life by purchasing her an old plantation where she lived in Yemassee, South Carolina. “The Champ” was always inviting the locals to come on down to training camp in Beaufort and “break bread” with him.
One of the things I liked most about “the Champ” was that he was about as genuine and as authentic as they come. When you asked him something, he would give you the straight unvarnished truth. No sugar coating with Joe Frazier.
No boxer had more heart in the ring than Smokin’ Joe. However, it was his heart “out of the ring” that impressed me most.
Joe Frazier was “old school” and not flashy. The national media and Hollywood types never gave him the real credit he was due. However, to average working Americans, they knew that Joe Frazier was the real deal and he was their hero.
Much has always been made of the Frazier-Ali rivalry. What impressed me most about Frazier, with regards to Ali, was that it was Frazier who gave Ali a job as his sparring partner when Ali was down.
Once again it was Smokin’ Joe who went to the Nixon White House and met personally with President Nixon to urge the president to intervene and help Ali get his license back during the Vietnam War. “The Champ” actually told me the story that as he was leaving the Oval Office, President Nixon asked him, “Is this what you really want?” Joe told him it was and President Nixon looked at Joe and asked, “I’ve got one more question, can you take him?” Joe replied “Mr. President, I got him. I got him.” And boy did he ever. Frazier gave Ali the fight that is still talked about today and kept the Heavyweight Crown in the Fight of the Century at Madison Square Garden in 1971.
Frazier had been there for Ali when he was down and it hurt Joe later when Ali would belittle him in the media. Frazier was also a Christian and it bothered him greatly when Ali would proclaim “I am the greatest.” Joe told me that “The Bible says only God is the greatest.”
With Frazier’s passing, it was good to see Ali say “The world has lost a great champion. I will always remember Joe with great respect and admiration.”
A few years ago, Smokin’ Joe got involved in promoting the need for cancer research and helping deserving students in the rural South be able to receive scholarships to pursue a career in medicine. In 2009, he was honored by the Elliott Science Symposium at Delta State University with its “Real Hero Award” for his efforts. Unfortunately, you didn’t see any mention of this in the national media. Neither did you see much mention of Joe Frazier always having time for his fans, and especially kids.
I remember the last time I saw “the Champ.” We were walking down a street of a small southern town headed to my car so that I could take him to the airport. An “old timer” who was a fixture in the town exclaimed to a group of kids, “That’s Smokin’ Joe! That’s Smokin’ Joe!” All the kids ran to “the Champ” to get autographs and to shake his hand.
After he spent time with each one of them, “the Champ” and I got in the car. He looked at me and said, “Those are my fans-you’ve always got to have time for your fans.”
In a day and age of increased steroid use in sports and a time when we ask where have our heroes gone, Joe Frazier was indeed a real hero who always put America first and who had time for everyone. He was the “People’s Champion.”
Van D. Hipp Jr. is chairman of American Defense International, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm specializing in government affairs, business development and public relations. He is the former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party and is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Army.