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Smokin’ Joe’s Philly not the only town spurning home-grown champs

A "for sale" sign bedecks Joe Frazier's gym in the city that venerates the fictional Rocky over the late, great boxer. Photo by Tony the Misfit used through Flickr's creative commons.

It’s sadly fitting that the AMC-TV channel aired “Rocky” and “Rocky II” on Monday, the day when former heavyweight boxing champ Joe Frazier died of liver cancer at 67. The Rocky movie marathon on AMC continued on Tuesday, broadcasting five Rocky movies back-to-back. Their  blog asks us whether any of the Rocky sequels are as good as the original.Now, I don’t have anything against AMC or Sylvester Stallone’s movie franchise. Nonetheless, it’s stunning how the Rocky character remains an enduring boxing icon, especially in Philadelphia, while a champion like Joe Frazier rarely got his due. For decades after he retired, “Smokin’ Joe” was most often explained to me as a character in the story of Muhammad Ali. It was if he were built up only to imbue Ali’s victories over him with more meaning. He was always the moon to Ali’s sun.

Sure, Frazier wasn’t the greatest, which is only to say he wasn’t Ali. But he was indisputably great, and he beat The Greatest in 1971, in a boxing match titled The Fight of the Century. But even apart from his historic bouts with Ali, Frazier’s life was full of amazing turns. Johnny Goodtimes, at the excellent Philly Sports History blog, summarizes some of them:

Joe Frazier grew up in South Carolina, the son of a one-armed moonshine runner. He dropped out of school to become a farmer, but after objecting to the way his employer beat another worker, he was fired. Frazier decided to move north, staying with his brother in New York City. He found no work in the Big Apple, and desperate and dead broke, moved to Philadelphia. There he started working at a slaughterhouse (sound familiar?) and learned to box.

Frazier is the type of athlete that Philadelphia usually celebrates proudly: an athlete who made the most of everything he had, overcame enormous odds to get to the top, and left it all in the ring every time he went out. Furthermore, when his career was over, he came back to Philly to train young boxers and try to keep them off the streets.

Two years ago I watched video of comedian Bill Burr’s “operatic,” curse-laden tirade against a hostile Philadelphia audience. It’s deliciously offensive. If you’re one who appreciates a harangue littered with “f-bombs,” and delivered with a distinctly Northeastern rhythm and zest, I highly recommend the 10-minute rant. You don’t often see insults sustained for that length of time down South, because after half a minute or so the situation would escalate into a fight.

What stood out most to me and many others, though, was a point Burr makes about Philadelphia and its boxing heroes:

F—in’ Rocky is your hero. The whole pride of your city is built around a f—in’ guy who doesn’t even exist. You got f—in’ Joe Frazier is from [here] but he’s black so you can’t f—in’ deal with him, so you make a f—in’ statue for some three-foot f—in’ Italian, you stupid philly cheese-eatin f—in’ jackasses.

The beauty of Burr’s rant is that he eventually wins the crowd over. They end up laughing and cheering their antagonist despite themselves. As the boos turn to cheers, Burr repeats his point  about Frazier, before he leaves the stage:

Listen. This doesn’t change anything. I still f—in’ hate you people. I hate this f—in’ city. I hate the way you eat with your little sh-tty ass Subway. Why don’t you f—in’ build something for Joe Frazier? You all gonna go see Rocky 19?– ‘Dude, I think he can win!’ All right, listen, I’m out of time. You guys were here, man. Thank you very much.

Goodtimes at the Philly Sports blog acknowledges Burr’s point about the statue:

Ah, the Rocky statue. Remarkably, a Rocky statue exists in front of our world famous Art Museum while the Facebook page to build Joe Frazier a statue has a mere 30 members.

Goodtimes thinks that Philly’s embrace of Rocky over Frazier has more to do with disinterest in boxing rather than racism. But that doesn’t explain why Frazier wasn’t given his propers 25 years ago, when the sport was still wildly popular.

Interestingly, a new documentary about Frazier, “Joe Frazier: When the Smoke Clears,” debuted at the Philadelphia Film Festival just two weeks ago. Hopefully the old Champ liked how the film recounted his unique story, and perhaps it brought a smile to his face.

Now, I don’t write this post merely to slag on Philadelphia, even though they famously mistreat quality athletes who represent their town. (Baseball star Mike Schmidt comes immediately to mind.)  New Orleans can’t be haughty, though. While the Crescent City venerates our local sports heroes to an amazing degree, we often have not fully appreciated our talented sons and daughters while they’re living here. (Louis Armstrong comes immediately to mind.)

For example, statues abound in our city, yet we don’t have one for civil rights hero Homer Plessy. Similarly, millions of tourists visit the Crescent City each year, but how many of them learn that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at a meeting in our city? Practically none.

Suffice it to say, New Orleans has a rich history worthy of continuous re-discovery. Unfortunately, it has scores of overlooked “champions” whom we have failed to properly remember and celebrate. Surely we can improve on this score. And if not, we’ll deservedly become the butt of some harsh jokes.

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  • Eli

    I agree with what you’re saying with regard to the short shrift my home town gives to Joe Frazier but I’ll say a few other things. First, the Rocky-worship is, I think, a bit overstated. First of all, where it does actually exist in droves is in the South Philadelphia neighborhood where the movie was set. That neighborhood fashions itself as the blue collar soul of the city and so its cultural preferences fairly or unfairly become synonymous with the preferences of the entire city. Second, I might argue that tourists play a large role in the ongoing deification of Rocky by not knowing anything about Philadelphia other than it is where Rocky is from. Philly has one of the greatest art museums in the world, the steps of which Rocky famously ran up during a key Rocky montage. On more than one occasion as a high-schooler I was stopped by tourists asking me directions “to the Rocky steps.” Never was I ever stopped for directions to the art museum.

    In any event we definitely do have weird relationships with our sports starts, whether we’re talking Mike Schmidt, Eric Lindros, or Donovan McNabb. From a Philadelphian’s perspective our love for an athlete has everything to do with our perception of unyielding exhaustive effort or underdoggedness, not our understanding of statistical greatness. It’s a fighting city and so controversy always seems rewarded over calm, even with major differences in success. That’s the only possible explanation for why people have been clamoring to get rid of the winningest coach in Eagles history Andy Reid while simultaneously canonizing Buddy Ryan, who while admittedly awesome and entertaining, never once won us a playoff game.