ON A WINTRY day last February, Joe Frazier’s eponymous gym was slowly coming to life. A handful of young fighters stretched and wrapped their hands; R&B music drowned out the grumbling of North Broad Street traffic. A space heater hummed, trying to expunge the winter chill of the large, open space. A little after 1 p.m., the front door opened. Another fighter entered. Not a young buck, but an old bull.
Decked out in an Egyptian blue suit, a black mock-turtleneck and a sly black Borsalino hat, Smokin’ Joe Frazier greeted the regulars as he slowly made his way across the gym floor, like the maître d’ at a legendary restaurant. A 2002 car accident, resulting in a series of operations, has forced a cane into his hand. The man who knocked out 27 opponents now finds the flight of stairs to his office a formidable foe.
Yet once seated on the office couch, Joe Frazier smiled a bright, charming grin. His frame isn’t large, but remains as solid as the Statue of David.
He leaned back, cocked his head as he barked out a question:
“Do you love me?!”
Well, he wasn’t exactly asking. He was singing. The 64-year-old former heavyweight champion of the world was belting out the Contours’ Motown classic: Do you love me … do you love me? Do you love me … do you love me? Now … that I … can dance.
If ever there was a place that loves Joe Frazier, it is his gym. For the past 40 years, it has been a Philadelphia institution and, more important, his home. (Until his recent move to Center City, it was literally his home — he lived in an upstairs apartment.) On this chilly afternoon, Joe’s 47-year-old son Marvis, who runs the gym’s day-to-day operations, sat behind the desk in the office. The walls were cluttered with family photos — Joe’s 11 children, something like 25 grandchildren, most of them arm in arm, wearing wide grins like his. A bookshelf held awards and citations from the 4-H Club, Temple University, former Philly mayors. And on the far wall, there hung a six-foot mural of Smokin’ Joe’s greatest moment: his 15th-round knockdown of — and subsequent victory over — Muhammad Ali in 1971’s “Fight of the Century.”
The health of a boxing gym is intrinsically linked to the health — physical, emotional and fiscal — of its owner, and Frazier’s has been no exception. Long gone are the days when it was ground zero of the Philadelphia boxing scene, with sparring wars involving local legends with names like Bennie Briscoe, Cyclone Hart and Matthew Saad Muhammad reinforcing Philly’s reputation as the City of Brotherly Gloves. Day-to-day operations are suspect. “Sometimes the water don’t run and the heat don’t work,” said Joe, in his typical soft, smoky growl. “But we always stay open. We’re not letting those boys and girls go out of here half-stepping.”