Frazier gets his time to shine
The documentary "Thrilla in Manila" made its HBO debut earlier this month
Unlike other films of the famous bout, this one focuses on Joe Frazier's story
Never as famous as Ali, Frazier has spent much of his life fighting for his legacy
"Smokin'" Joe Frazier is still fighting.
The former heavyweight champion of the world is 65 now, and his mind isn't nearly as quick as his fists once were. His days are often spent traveling for appearances, doing interviews and signing autographs. He maintains the same workout routine he had in his prime, and he still rises at 4 a.m., restless and beholden to a schedule he no longer has to keep.
But he has no plans to step in the ring again.
For more than 30 years Frazier has been tormented by the ghosts of Manila and of losing his last and most-celebrated fight with Muhammad Ali. And for more than 30 years, Fraizer has been fighting for his legacy. But earlier this month, he received some help.
Thrilla in Manila, a documentary that focuses on Frazier's complicated relationship with the more-famous Ali, made its HBO debut to much fanfare, winning warm reviews from the likes of the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun. Director John Dower said the documentary was meant to be all about Frazier, who has historically always played runner-up to Ali.
"We can say they did a good job," Frazier said, unconvincingly, of the film, which focuses mostly on the famed Oct. 1, 1975 clash in the Philippines, the last of three legendary fights between Frazier and Ali. "Though, I'd like to see a little more hardship in the film, which was not there.
"By the time Manila came, the money was there. I had four or five houses, 10 cars. I'm talking about the hard times. 1975 was my life? No."
The film does broach Frazier's bootstrap upbringing -- born in 1944, one of 13 children in rural South Carolina, charged with helping tend his father's farm and moonshine distillery -- but not enough for Frazier, who admits he hasn't viewed the documentary in its entirety.
Instead, the film spends much of its 90 minutes stuck in the 1970s, using archived interviews and footage of the fight, interspersed with the accounts of journalists and those close to both Ali and Frazier. Dower said he aimed to portray Frazier as more representative of average, working-class black Americans -- a stark contrast to the image Ali portrayed of Frazier, the film contends. The "Greatest Of All Time" allegedly manipulated the public into seeing Frazier as a tool of moneyed, white interest at a time of great social and racial unrest. Dower argues that the truth has been overshadowed by an Ali mythology that largely ignores that boxer's darker side.
"When we set out to make this film, we didn't say, 'Hey, let's make a movie to trash Muhammad Ali,'" Dower told the L.A. Times. Rather, Thrilla in Manila, which is narrated by Liev Schreiber, reconstructs much of the rivalry from Frazier's perspective and brings many questions to bear on Ali, who was not interviewed for the film as he battles the effects of Parkinson's disease.
Much has been made of the archived footage Dower and his crew found of Ali espousing segregationist rhetoric and boasting about attending a Ku Klux Klan rally. Ali's taunting of Frazier with racially-tinged names like "gorilla" and "Uncle Tom" is examined at a depth not likely reached before. The documentary characterizes the Ali mythology as something less than sterling.
Nowadays, Frazier is far removed from the Philippines and the height of his boxing career. But in Philadelphia, he's solidified another part of his legacy through his gym and his outreach programs for youth. Why few have taken note is still a mystery to him.
"We need to get back to the young men and the young women," Frazier said, speaking of a community outreach that has long been a passion of his. Of course, one of his greatest gifts to the next generation is now vacant and up for sale.
His famed training facility, in which the legendary boxer once lived, still stands with its brick and stone, emblazoned with the Frazier's name in the midst of a North Philadelphia neighborhood that could use the outreach. After Frazier hung up his gloves for good in 1981, he and his son Marvis, who had a brief boxing career, offered training and guidance to hundreds of youth, from the world over. For years, Frazier lived in an apartment at the back of the building. But as the gym's operating costs escalated (it exceeded $350,000 a year -- money Frazier said he couldn't recoup by training young men and women in need of direction), he had to sell it.
"I spent a lot of money and didn't get anything back for that gym," he said. "I've done my part."
The Frazier camp prickles at the discussion of the gym's closure. It was first shuttered more than a year ago, and was put on the market not long after.
"Selling the gym is not closing the gym," said Les Wolff, Frazier's business manager and primary aide-de-camp since 2003. "Joe Frazier's Gym will not close [because] Joe Frazier is that gym."
Now, Frazier lives in transition, he says, living in an apartment he doesn't love, waiting for whatever might come next. And Of course, a major stumbling block along Frazier's path toward that next step has been Ali, whose name has always seemed to appear with any mention of Frazier. "Frazier beat Ali in the greatest of their fights, but Ali transcended boxing more than any other fighter," said John DiSanto, who has created a home for Philadelphia's rich pugilistic history at PhillyBoxingHistory.com. "It doesn't take anything away from Frazier, but Ali is a different type of a figure. He resonated with people all over the world."
Men mellow with age, but bridges were burned, and Ali's overriding fame always seemd to eat at Smokin' Joe. Until recently, it seems.
"Nobody has anything but good things to say about Muhammad now," Frazier said. "I'd do anything he needed for me to help.
"I can't fight the whole world or the whole city by myself."
VAULT: The epic battle (10.13.75)