It was time for one last tribute inside Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church on Monday. The choir of more than 150 members was done singing their songs. The preachers were done singing their praises. The crowd some 3,000-people strong was about to start making its way to the doors.
It was then that a son stood before a casket draped in a black-and-white blanket. The casket — his father’s — sat under a sash that read “Still Smokin” in gold letters, two boxing gloves and a green World Heavyweight Championship belt amid floral displays of white carnations and mums. The son chimed a bell once, a pained expression etched across his face. Twice. He kept going until the standing 10-count, a traditional boxing tribute, was complete.
Then, Marvis Frazier wrapped his arms around Jacob Chandler, who was more than the funeral director. Chandler was among his father’s closest friends. Their embrace was tight. It lasted nearly as long as the 10-count. Afterward, Chandler would say “I lost the best friend in my life. I don’t know what to say. I’m going to miss him.”
The “Homegoing Celebration” was over, giving way to a private procession which ended at Ivy Hill Cemetery, the final resting place of legendary boxer Smokin’ Joe Frazier.
“One More Round”
In delivering his eulogy about a man who left a mark both literally and figuratively, Rev. Dr. Alyn E. Waller turned to 2 Timothy 4:7; “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” From the pulpit, he said he knew some preachers out there might think “One More Round” was an easy choice to eulogize a boxer, but it was an apt choice for the man who died last week of liver cancer at the age of 67.
“One of the things Joe Frazier teaches us is how to live after the struggle. After ‘Down goes Frazier, down goes Frazier, down goes Frazier, and he isn’t getting up,’ what did it feel like to be Joe Frazier when life knocked him down hard?” said Waller, referring to a famous line from when Frazier got knocked out by George Foreman in 1973. “He got back up. He is a hero. Next time someone tells you you’re down for the count, tell them ‘I’m from Philly, where Joe Frazier was from. We get back up.'”
To many of those in attendance, Frazier was, in fact, a hero. To others, he was a father, grandfather or friend. In the case of Muhammad Ali, who traveled to Philadelphia to attend the services, he was once upon a time a foe.
Foe, then friend
Ali arrived during the family’s processional, entering through a side door. His wife Yolanda “Lonnie” Ali and another relative guided him to his seat, supporting him under both arms, the weakening effects of Parkinson’s disease evident. Yet, Ali rose to his feet when the Rev. Jesse Jackson implored the crowd to do so.
Two of their three epic ring battles are considered among the best fights ever; they transcended the sport itself with the pugilists’ impact on the civil-rights movement evoked during the service. In many ways, their rivalry came to define their careers and lives.
“I’ve always remained friends with Joe. He would come to Vegas to see me,” said Gene Kilroy, Ali’s longtime business manager. “We’re having a big party out there for Muhammad Ali on the 18th of February, Muhammad Ali’s 70th birthday party, and I invited Joe. He said, ‘Maybe we can have number four.’ I said, ‘Joe that’s over with.’ Joe said, ‘The sun shined on us. Now we gotta be friends, not fighters.’
“Ali never hated anybody. … The way Ali was any time you put a camera in front of him he was talking, but Ali didn’t hate Joe for any reason. Ali loved Joe. Ali respected Joe.”
Also on hand Monday was the legendarily boisterous boxing promoter Don King, who said Frazier “never forgave Ali too much about the [incendiary] remarks he made at Thrilla in Manila, but he kind of mellowed out on it. I got them both together and it kind of ameliorated the situation.”
Patti Dreifuss, Frazier’s publicist for Thrilla in Manila, was shocked when she heard of Frazier’s illness. He passed away shortly after she learned of his cancer.
“All I can think of is all the wonderful times, all the happy memories. … In Manila, jumping in the pool when Don King asked him to do something,” she said. “It was at poolside and he wanted him to do something and Joe just jumped in the pool to get away from him. And everyone kind of laughed and applauded just because he had the nerve to jump in the pool. But he would give you the shirt off his back. … He never said ‘no’ to anything.”
Beyond the Ali fights
Monday was not about Ali/Frazier, though, even if there was a poster for one of their fights stationed next to Smoke’s casket during two days of public “lie in state” viewings at the Wells Fargo Center. It was about remembering a man who many said was underappreciated during a life in which he loved his adopted hometown, even if there was a statue to a fictitious boxer named Rocky Balboa and none for a living, breathing champion named Frazier.
That came up when Sylvester Stallone’s son stopped to talk to the media outside before the services. And, it came up when Jackson started the eulogizing inside by commanding the crowd to give a raucous standing ovation to the deceased, noting his rise from a segregated South Carolina when he “couldn’t buy ice cream in a Howard Johnson’s, [when African-Americans] were born at home or in the colored wing of a hospital.”
“From those depths he rose to win, with scars on his soul,” Jackson said. “He, from among us and never left us.”
Then, Jackson called out for one last tribute to Frazier.
“Tell them Rocky was not a champion. Joe Frazier was,” he roared in the sanctuary. “Tell them Rocky was fictitious. Joe was reality. Rocky’s fists are frozen in stone. Joe’s fists were smokin’. Rocky never faced Ali or Holmes or Norton or Foreman. Rocky never tasted his own blood. Joe Frazier deserves a statue in downtown Philadelphia. Tell them. Tell them!”
Some 3,000 people rose to their feet and told them with applause, cheers and loving respect.