Vegas sidelights: Close encounter with Smokin' Joe
- Philip Ella Juico () - November 13, 2011 - 12:00am

LAS VEGAS – Arriving Las Vegas late Tuesday afternoon, one does immediately feel the excitement associated with boxing’s latest trilogy, the Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez III, from the moment one goes through immigration at the McCarran International Airport to the Filipino taxi driver who talks of Pacquiao perking up Las Vegas’ sluggish economy.

The day we left, Joseph William (Smokin’ Joe) Frazier lost his short battle with liver cancer Monday night in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Tuesday in Manila) at the age of 67. Frazier, who suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure, died at a hospice center in the city of “Rocky” fame that became his home after spending a bit of time in his birthplace in Beaufort, South Carolina. Frazier, who had his own trilogy with the great Muhammad Ali in 1971 (“The Fight of the Century”), 1974 and 1975 (“Thrilla in Manila”), was diagnosed with liver cancer in late September.

Frazier turned pro in 1965 after winning the gold medal in Olympic heavyweight boxing in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He fought up to 1976 and came out of retirement in 1981 for one last fight. His record was 32-4-1, 27 KOs. Frazier lost twice to both George Foreman (1968 Mexico Olympics gold medalist) and Ali (1960 Rome Olympics heavyweight champion).

I had the privilege of talking to Frazier in what may have been one of his last public appearances on Sept. 17, 2011 at the lobby of the MGM Grand Arena on the eve of the Floyd Mayweather-Victor Ortiz title fight. It would later turn out that in less than two weeks, Frazier would start treatment for liver cancer and in less than 40 days he would succumb to an ailment that has claimed millions of lives.

Frazier, who earned millions of dollars throughout his colorful career, was in the company of other heavyweights like Earnie Shavers (who could very well claim the distinction of being one of boxing’s hardest punchers as attested by another great heavyweight champion, Larry Holmes) posing for photographs and signing boxing gloves for $150. I had one left glove signed in recognition of his famed left hook that decked a number of fighters, including Ali.

Frazier was seated below the usual boxing ring with the MGM lion at the center of the ring that MGM puts up in its huge lobby to hype up a forthcoming fight. A fair-sized crowd was buying souvenirs and having photo-ops with Frazier and the other former heavyweight titlists and contenders and I decided to add to my souvenirs of boxing gloves autographed by Pacquiao; Gabriel Mira of Mexico whom Pacquiao knocked out in the fourth round to successfully defend his flyweight title in 1999 at the Araneta Coliseum; and Larry Holmes (also a left glove in remembrance of probably the best left jab in heavyweight history).

From a distance, however, it was hard to make Frazier out. I was ushered into the cordoned area and immediately sat beside him. He was wearing a Texas one-gallon hat and dark glasses (which he removed for the picture-taking). As I sat down beside him, I noticed his ashen-like complexion and gaunt cheeks. When I was introduced by his handlers as “Philip from the Philippines”, Frazier softly said (I could barely hear him from the din of the lobby crowd), “Oh, the Thrilla in Manila”.

Close up, it became very clear that he was a far cry from the Frazier who thrilled the crowds with his a la Rocky Marciano style of bobbing and weaving and crowding (and snorting) style, keeping up the relentless pressure that Ali himself felt in the “Thrilla” in 1975. Ali, in his autobiography, “The Greatest”, would later say it (the Frazier fight) “was the closest thing he felt to death”.

Frazier’s long-time trainer, Eddie Futch (who at one time had “Trainer of the Year” awardee, Freddie Roach, under his wings), refused to have Frazier back into the ring with Ali after the 14th round (title fights then were for 15 rounds), saying, “just stay here, people will long remember what you’ve done”.

That was Frazier, always ready to fight no matter who was in front of him. It is perhaps a testament to his courage that he dared fight the 6’4”, 230-pound giant Foreman twice in his career. 

It was with some difficulty that Frazier signed the glove. After he signed the glove, I asked his colleagues if Smokin’ Joe could autograph the glove with “To Philip”, to add a personal touch to it. Frazier wrote my name but was having difficulty hearing and writing beyond signing. His right hand was, in fact, unsteady. One of his handlers said apologetically, “Philip, quit while you’re ahead.” And so, I did.

Boxing writer Lance Pugmire wrote “in a sad touch of irony, Frazier left the world the same week the final chapter will play out in what could be boxing’s next great trilogy (Pacquiao-Marquez)”, the first being the Ali-Frazier rubber match.

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