Like the moment it indelibly captures, the gargantuan clay, foam and metal figure in a second-floor Frankford Avenue art studio gives off a larger-than-life air.
There, sculptor Stephen Layne toils to put the finishing touches on a nine-foot, 400-pound version of the late, great Philadelphia boxer Smokin’ Joe Frazier.
Its pose is inspired by the one Frazier struck after knocking Muhammad Ali down to the canvas with a powerful left hook in 1971’s “Fight of the Century I.”
Its purpose, after being bronzed downstairs at the same location for four months starting in a few weeks, will ultimately provide the city with a long-overdue statue honoring Philadelphia’s non-fictional, legendary champion of the world.
It’s a heavyweight challenge on several levels.
“I have no control over how people interpret it, so there’s no pressure about that,” Layne said last week when asked whether the years-long effort to bring a Frazier statue to Philadelphia weighs on him while working. “If there’s any pressure, it’s an artistic pressure to finish the best piece I can put out there.”
An unmistakable presence
Flanked by two pairs of boxing gloves dangling from nails, 26 photographs of Frazier hang on one wall of a studio that’s brightened by several skylights.
The images capture Smokin’ Joe fighting, training, signing autographs, getting his hands taped and, among other things, hamming it up with a Frankenstein impersonator.
Near the front door, which slides open near a trapdoor through which pieces of the statue’s clay version will be lowered to Shane and Julia Stratton‘s bronzing studio next month, sits a model of Frazier.
All of that gets visually lost upon entering Layne’s studio. Owning the room, which sits within ear- and eyeshot the El tracks, is Frazier atop a wooden platform. He’s not far from an adjustable scaffolding tower on which the sculptor often crafts his artistic vision.
A boxing shoe belonging to Frazier’s son Rodney sits next to each foot, which is more than twice as long as the average adult human’s.
The sculpture’s gloves are bigger than human heads.
Its presence is so dominant that, according to Layne, it recently brought one of Frazier’s daughters to tears.
The artistic process
In a studio that gets as hot as a boxing gym, Layne said he’s faced challenges determining just how detailed the statue’s attributes should be.
While the initials “JF” are carved into Frazier’s shorts, some Frazier kin have told him they’d like it to be detailed down to the eyelashes.
The artist said, however, that that would detract from a tribute that he’s seen from 20 yards away and reduced down to a thumbnail photo.
Today, before bronzing, it accurately captures what Frazier looked like in his fighting prime (though not as spent as he was in the final round against Ali).
During months of rigorous six-hour sculpting days, compromises had to made in the name of artwork that will, when on a South Philadelphia concrete riser, stand a dozen feet tall and weigh 1,800 pounds.
“It would have less of an impact,” he said going an overdetailed direction.
Those compromises did not, however, take away the artist’s commitment to capturing Frazier’s pigeon-toed, heel-raised stance.
They also did not stop him from shaving Frazier’s fight-day stubble since storied Daily News columnist Stan Hochman told him Madison Square Garden (where the fight occurred) had a facial-hair ban in 1971.
“Nope!” came Layne’s response when asked whether he’s ever taken on a commission like this.
The discussion turned to how people may pose for photos with a statue that will face Citizens Bank Park from the Xfinity Live! side of the intersection, “a perfect spot for everyone [down at the stadiums] to see it.”
It’s not as simple as the Rocky statue pose (arms overhead) since it replicates a knock-down punch having already been thrown. The idea of mimicking Ali’s reaction was broached.
“I think that’d be very cool,” Layne said.
What’s left to do now is “dessert work,” or final touches; making sure aspects of the statue are the right height or width and “pulling out the beautiful facets.”
While the bronzing work could be done as early as February, Layne said he hopes to wait until April to have the statue transported down to its permanent home. It’s better weather for a ceremony at the site, he noted.
The back story
Though the lack of a statue stung Frazier in life, the calls for one grew stronger at, and after, his “Homegoing Celebration” at Northwest Philadelphia’s Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church.
“Tell them Rocky was fictitious. Joe was reality,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said from the pulpit during his eulogy in Nov. 2011. “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.”
Less than a year later, city officials announced a $150,000 fundraising effort that would ideally commission a Frazier statue, and cover its preservation and upkeep.
After a slow start, of which legendary Philadelphia boxer Bernard Hopkins took notice, funds poured in via events and donations.
By April 2013, after seeing several proposals, Frazier’s family members selected the work of Lawrence J. Nowlan, an Overbrook native who created the Harry Kalas Memorial Statue at Citizens Bank Park. Layne’s proposal was the runner-up in that process.
Four months later, though, Nowlan tragically passed away at the age of 48 without having completed his vision.
In Dec. 2013, the Philadelphia Arts Commission approved Layne’s plan for the statue that will soon find a home on the grounds where the Spectrum — a since-demolished building that Frazier christened with a 1967 fight against Tony Doyle — once stood.
All loose ends were tied up within a couple months and Layne got to work in February.
Expecting to finish up his work sometime in September, he expects bronzing to take four or five months, with an unveiling possibly coming to South Philadelphia in April 2015.