Two friends, once again reunited.
I was born in 1979, just as the storied careers of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier were coming to a close. I never had the opportunity to watch these men fight in the prime of their respective boxing lives. Phrases such as “float like a butterfly; sting like a bee” or “they lied, pretty boy” predated my cognizance for many years. It wasn’t until I was in my early teens before I understood what the “Fight of the Century” or the “Thrilla in Manila” meant to professional pugilism. All I knew, growing up, was that Ali, Frazier, Floyd Patterson and George Foreman were not only some of the greatest boxers in the history of the sport, but were also wonderful friends to my grandfather.
Of those friends, one, in particular, still stands out in my memory: Smokin’ Joe Frazier.
At Howard’s memorial service in 1995, myriad personalities, broadcasters, politicians and athletes attended to pay their respects. At age 15, I could hardly make sense of it. To say the scene was overwhelming would be a drastic understatement. And yet, when the smoke cleared and the crowd condensed to a select few who came to the reception at Tavern on the Green, there, at my table, was Joe Frazier.
His personality was undeniably vibrant in spite of a soft, raspy voice. His powerful handshake made my teenaged paws look as if I were a baby trying to arm-wrestle a grizzly bear. His equally strong hug resonated warmth and compassion as he offered his condolences. We sat at a table with various other athletes, all of them noteworthy but, in those moments, none of them struck a chord the way Frazier did. The respect he had for Howard was abundantly apparent in the way he approached and treated me.
My only regret from the interaction was that I didn’t tell him how much my grandfather admired and respected him in return.
Last night, the world lost a 67-year-old Joe Frazier as he lost his final fight, this time at the hands of the unrelenting opponent known as cancer; a foe we are all at risk of facing. 67 years old is, by my standards, still decades removed from “a ripe old age” — especially for a professional athlete whose body is supposed to be far superior to the average man. Alas, even the greatest of fighters with the most superior of bodies is just as susceptible as the average man.
I realize that my grandfather is forever linked to Frazier for that famous call during a particular fight against George Foreman, but I do not deem it appropriate to write those words on this day. Not when a great man has been knocked down for good. Instead, I’d rather share the fondest memory I have of a man who was a friend on a dark day for my family and wish him well on his journey into the afterlife.
And in my mind, there’s images of my grandfather being there, on the other side, waiting to give Joe Frazier a strong handshake and an equally strong, warm, compassionate hug.
Goodnight, Joe Frazier, and thank you. I take comfort in knowing old friends have been reunited.