SI Vault
Jack McCallum
June 01, 1981
Smokin' Joe Frazier's boy, Marvis, burns to make a name for himself in the ring—while his dad fans the flame
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June 01, 1981

The Son Is Coming Up

Smokin' Joe Frazier's boy, Marvis, burns to make a name for himself in the ring—while his dad fans the flame

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It had to be disconcerting for Steve Zouski as he stood in the center of the ring in Madison Square Garden last month and stared at the scowling visage of not one, but two heavyweights named Frazier. There was Marvis, with whom Zouski would shortly be trading lefts and rights in a six-round undercard bout that preceded Gerry Cooney's devastation of Ken Norton. As it turned out, that would be bad enough. But standing next to Marvis, wearing a shocking-pink warmup jacket by Sasson that made him the spring season's most unlikely study in pastel, was his famous father. As is his wont at such times, Smokin' Joe was also wearing a sneer, upon which Zouski could focus as the boxers received their instructions. Although Zouski looked a bit soft around the middle at 206 pounds, he was no lamb being led to slaughter—he had won 21 of 22 professional fights and often trained with world middleweight champion Marvin Hagler. And this was no ordinary bout. Zouski was stepping in against boxing history. The prefight preliminaries done, Joe whacked his son on the back, climbed out of the ring and shortly became the world's most formidable fusion of doting parent and cornerman, leaving Zouski to ponder the prospect of taking on two generations in one opponent.

Some 30 minutes later, after Marvis had relentlessly hammered Zouski en route to his fourth victory—a TKO at 2:13 of the final round—in four fights, LeRoy Neiman sat on a bench in Frazier's dressing room sketching Marvis. Neiman isn't in the habit of limning subjects with four professional bouts. "Hey, Champ, you were one of the first guys I did, remember?" Neiman called out to Joe. "Yeah, I remember," said the former heavyweight champ. "You can just get out the old pictures."

That's true to a degree. At 6'1½" and 201 pounds Marvis, 20, is two inches taller and five to 10 pounds lighter than his powerful pop was in his prime, but Marvis has the same wide, deep-set, brooding eyes, the same broad nose and full lips. And under the same close-cropped black hair is the wide and formidable Frazier forehead. But even as promoters wait with open checkbooks, there's no way to estimate how Marvis Kirk Frazier's career will compare with his father's—other than that Marvis' has begun with much more fanfare.

The Zouski fight on May 11 was Marvis' best as a pro. He controlled the tempo and was effective with a right uppercut, a punch his father rarely used. "I'd grade myself with an A," said Marvis afterward. But though Marvis outpunched Zouski by a 5-1 ratio, he was unable to put Zouski down. "If that were the old man, he'd have that guy's head off," said one ringside observer. That evaluation, while perhaps true, was as much a testament to the cross Marvis must bear as to anything else. Marvis is well-built, but there's no doubt that right now he would be physically overmatched against most of the top heavyweights. "The weight's not going to matter," insists Joe. "Punching power doesn't come from weight. It comes from leverage and technique. Hey, he's still only a kid."

Marvis hasn't mastered the art of cutting off the ring, either. In his third pro fight, one month before he fought Zouski, he chased Melvin Epps of Brooklyn around the ring in Madison Square Garden's Felt Forum while winning a unanimous decision. "You can't fight by yourself," Joe had said after that track meet. There's also some question as to how well Marvis can take a punch. In his first pro fight, in the Felt Forum last Sept. 12, Roger Troupe had Marvis rubberlegged near the end of the first round, but Frazier rallied and knocked Troupe through the ropes and out at 2:08 of the third.

Then there's "the neck bit," as Marvis refers to it—which he does only when he has to. The six-inch-long scar visible on the back of Marvis' neck is the result of an operation to remove a muscle that was putting pressure on a nerve. Marvis discovered the implications of this ailment last June in the semifinals of the Olympic Trials at the Omni in Atlanta. Less than a minute into his bout against James Broad, Marvis was hit on top of the forehead and went thudding to the canvas. "I was actually paralyzed and couldn't move for about three minutes," he says. "My whole body felt like my funnybone, but I was totally conscious." At the time, the Frazier camp figured it was just a freak punch.

Marvis turned pro last summer, and about a month after beating Troupe, he knocked out Dennis Rivers in the second round. But in November, during a workout in his father's Smokin' Joe Gymnasium in North Philadelphia, Marvis' head was snapped back and he was nailed with a blow to the forehead by Canadian heavyweight Gaston Berube, and again Frazier was "frozen"; he was temporarily unable to move his arms and legs. A medical examination finally revealed that under certain circumstances a nerve in his neck was being pinched by a muscle, and later that month surgery was performed to prevent a recurrence of that condition.

After Marvis' stunning loss to Broad—only his second defeat in 58 amateur fights—Joe began taking a more active part in his son's career. "Sometimes I think the knockout was a thing to bring my father closer to me in the gym," says Marvis. "Sure, he was working with me before, but since the knockout he has been paying more attention. God does things in strange ways, you know."

Indeed, Papa Joe has taken control of Marvis' life down to the smallest detail. On one occasion a reporter was talking to Marvis in the cramped quarters in the rear of the Smokin' Joe Gym. The elder Frazier was out of town that day but called in the middle of the interview and was told Marvis had been talking about 20 minutes. "That's enough time," said Joe. "Tell the man to leave." On another occasion he interrupted an interview with Marvis that had been in progress only 10 minutes. "That's enough talking," said Joe. "After 10 minutes you start repeating yourself, anyway."

Joe is now Marvis' head trainer, too, having replaced George Benton, the former middleweight who has gained some celebrity as a trainer, shortly after the gymnasium debacle. "I was watching Marvis earlier, and I didn't like what was going on." Frazier told Leroy Samuels of The [Philadelphia] Bulletin. "That's my boy! And he wasn't showing me what I thought he should." Benton and Val Colbert, who have worked with Marvis from the beginning, have both stayed on as assistants. "There's no problem at all as far as us getting along," says Colbert, "because Joe's the boss, and that's that."

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