Episode 3: “A Real Fighter”
Ask the average person who’s the most famous boxer from Philadelphia and they’re likely to reply with “Rocky Balboa.” In fact, it was the real-life heavyweight champion Joe Frazier who ran up the Art Museum steps and boxed raw meat sides at a slaughterhouse. We examine who is remembered when we build monuments to our heroes, and who gets left out — and visit the places around Philadelphia where Smokin’ Joe’s legacy lives on.
- The Fight of the Century
- Mark Kram Jr., Smokin’ Joe: The Life of Joe Frazier
- Official Joe Frazier website
- Brent Leggs and the National Trust for Historic Preservation
- James Shuler Memorial Boxing Gym
- Joe Frazier and the Knockouts on the Ed Sullivan Show
ARCHIVAL FIGHT SOUNDS: Be here any minute. He’s coming out. Listen to the roar of this crowd. I want to tell you, this is going to be a spectacular evening. The tension and the excitement here is monumental.
PAUL FARBER, HOST: There’s a bronze statue of one of the most famous Philly boxers that ever lived. People pass by it all the time. From here, you can see the skyline in the distance.
ARCHIVAL FIGHT SOUNDS: Wouldn’t you say, though, he’s in good shape? He’s in good shape, no doubt.
PF: This boxer was memorialized for fights like this one. He would punch raw meat at a slaughterhouse. He ran through the streets, sprinting up the Art Museum steps on his training runs.
ARCHIVAL FIGHT SOUNDS: And now we’re ready. Hundreds of millions are seeing this bout around the world. A packed house at Madison Square Garden. Muhammad Ali in the red trunks, Joe Frazier.
[BOXING BELL DINGS]
PF: This isn’t a Hollywood character. The man remembered in bronze is Joe Frazier. And his statue isn’t outside the prestigious Art Museum. It’s in front of a sports bar, near the stadiums in South Philly.
This is The Statue. I’m your host, Paul Farber.
When Sylvester Stallone created Rocky, he drew from the stories of real boxers — like Rocky Marciano, Chuck Wepner, and Joe Frazier.
Frazier in particular was central to the character. He had a cameo in the first movie.
ROCKY: A champion in and out of the ring. Philadelphia’s own Smokin’ Joe. The beloved, Mr. Joe Frazier!
PF: Stallone actually wanted Frazier to play Clubber Lang in Rocky III, but the audition didn’t go as planned. Stallone and Frazier got in the ring, and Frazier landed a punch that Stallone said felt like a “falling piano.”
Stallone needed stitches. The whole idea was called off. It was a reminder that deep down, actors act and boxers box.
Today we’re going to look at the story of a real-life champion. Who was Joe Frazier — as a fighter and a public figure? Why isn’t his statue as popular as Rocky’s? We’ll explore how Frazier is remembered in the city, and why sometimes it’s easier to honor a fictional character than it is a real person.
AMARI JOHNSON: It wasn’t until 2015 that there was actually a monument to reflect the accomplishments of Joe Frazier, and he passed away in 2011. So he didn’t even get to see that monument.
PF: That’s my friend Amari Johnson. He’s an African American Studies professor at Temple University. He’s written about the Rocky statue and other monuments in the city.
He’s quick to point out the irony of our love for a character who never existed, while a real-life champ who overcame actual adversity slips out of public memory.
AJ: There’s a statue to a mythical figure who represents the city, but there’s no acknowledgment of an actual person who in many ways was truly the embodiment of an underdog story, right? So the fact is that this is someone who really never received the recognition that he deserved for his talents.
PF: We wanted to understand why Frazier isn’t remembered like Rocky. So we reached out to Mark Kram, Jr., a journalist who wrote a biography of Frazier. He’s been interested in this story since he was a kid.
His father was a sportswriter who covered Frazier’s career — and witnessed some of the champ’s biggest fights up close.
Mark agrees that Frazier has been snubbed.
MARK KRAM, JR.: He really hasn’t received the kind of treatment, kind of given the historical marker that he deserved. Because after all, he was a player in one of the great dramas in the history of sports. His fights with Muhammad Ali will go down through the ages. He was a complicated man. He was a big hearted man.
PF: We needed to go back to the beginning.
AJ: Joe Frazier was born in 1944 in South Carolina to a sharecropping family.
PF: When he was a teenager, he got into an argument with a white student at his school.
AJ: And he had to flee town, and he found himself in Philadelphia at 15.
PF: In Philly, after his aunt took him in, he landed a job in a slaughterhouse.
MK: And his aunt said, “Well, look, you know, if you get into trouble down here, there’s nothing I can do to help you. But why don’t you go over to the Police Athletic League and get to know the police over there?” And, you know, she thought it would be a good influence for him. Well, you know, he was about 30 pounds overweight. He wasn’t fitting into any of his clothing. And he went over there to work in the gym. He wasn’t there very long before he hit the heavy bag with his left hand. And it was such a resounding, quaking blow…
[PUNCHING BAG SOUND]
…that it got the attention of everybody in the gym. The guy had thunder in his left hand.
It was a natural gift.
PF: This was a pivotal time in Joe’s life. At the Police Athletic League, he honed his natural gift for boxing. He also met Yank Durham, the man who would become his trainer. Yank gave him his legendary nickname.
WU-TANG CLAN: I smoke on the mic like Smokin’ Joe Frazier.
DAVID LETTERMAN: Smokin’ Joe Frazier.
ANNOUNCER: His name? Smokin’ Joe Frazier.
PF: And that slaughterhouse job came in handy.
MK: As part of his boxing training, he would start pounding on the animal carcasses, which years later Sylvester Stallone would adopt for the Rocky character.
AJ: He was the one who would train by running up those steps. He was the one who would train in a meat locker, punching. So those were things that Rocky sort of took from his story and incorporated into the movie.
MK: Joe would half jokingly say, you know, that scum-bugga stole that stuff from me.
PF: Frazier went on to win the Golden Gloves championships three consecutive times — in 1962, ‘63 and ‘64. His early successes catapulted him into the spotlight at the Tokyo Olympics, where he won gold.
When he got back to Philly, he kept fighting. He knocked out famous heavyweights like Oscar Bonavena and Buster Mathis. He got his own gym on North Broad, where he lived and trained.
Then, on March 8, 1971…
ARCHIVAL FIGHT SOUNDS: Joe Frazier will be here any minute. He’s coming out. Listen to the roar of this crowd.
PF: He was going up against Muhammad Ali. The greatest of all time. They were fighting for the title of world heavyweight champion. It was billed the Fight of the Century.
MK: That’s exactly what it was. The pre-fight hysteria was just off the charts. You had reporters coming in from all over the country, all over the world. And they all filed into Madison Square Garden. Women in fabulous gowns and furs.
[FLASHBULB PHOTOGRAPHY SOUNDS]
Men in tuxedos. And stars and starlets. It was like nothing you’ve ever seen before. The limousines were parked eight deep outside of Madison Square Garden that night.
PF: People were on the edge of their seats.
ARCHIVAL FIGHT SOUNDS: And now we’re ready. Hundreds of millions are seeing this bout around the world. A packed house at Madison Square Garden.
Ali had never lost a professional fight before. But neither had Frazier.
Ali landed a punch.
ARCHIVAL FIGHT SOUNDS: Muhammad Ali’s best punch, the jab.
PF: And Frazier hit back.
ARCHIVAL FIGHT SOUNDS: Oh, what a shot! Muhammad Ali has never taken such a battering.
PF: In the end…
ARCHIVAL FIGHT SOUNDS: Frazier is the winner! Frazier is the winner! He has just scored the greatest victory of his career! Of anybody’s career!
PF: Joe Frazier, a Philadelphian, won the Fight of the Century. He was the world heavyweight champion.
MK: It was an absolute, phenomenal sporting event. Two men undefeated, at the top of their game and they went at each other for 15 rounds of nonstop, pedal-to-the-metal action. And in the 15th, Joe caught Ali and decked him. And it was just the culmination of an absolutely magnificent night.
PF: Frazier was on top of the world, larger than life. And his interests extended far beyond the ring.
[JOE FRAZIER AND THE KNOCKOUTS SONG STARTS]
PF: He had an eye for style. He got himself a brand new fur coat.
NEWSCASTER: A jasmine mink coat for Joe Frazier.
JOE FRAZIER: I like fashion. That’s the important thing. I love it. You know, I like to see people look good and therefore, as far as making people look good, make myself look good also.
PF: And music. His trainer once said he couldn’t prep for a fight without music playing in the background. He had serious vocal chops, which he’d regularly showcase as front man for Joe Frazier and the Knockouts.
[JOE FRAZIER AND THE KNOCKOUTS SONG FADES UP]
It seemed like the world was his oyster. But fast forward to the present day, and you won’t find Frazier’s likeness on Philly tour buses, or a line of people waiting to take a photo with his statue. The fact is, both locally and globally, Rocky is the champ people remember.
Joe Frazier’s biographer thinks that he should be remembered as one of the greatest athletes of all time. But even Mark can admit that a fictional character has captured more attention.
MK: I would dare say that if you went around the country and asked them to name a Philadelphia fighter, they wouldn’t get to Joe. I bet they would say Rocky, who doesn’t exist. So what does that say about our ability to perceive what is real and what is unreal?
PF: One reason is that Hollywood characters are often written to be relatable. They overcome their adversity. If they stumble, they grow. Their knots untangle. But real people are complicated. Especially our heroes.
Frazier had a lifelong feud with his rival, Muhammad Ali, that often got bitter. Outside the ring, Ali was legendary for jabbing with his words.
MUHAMMAD ALI: He’s too ugly to be the world champ! The world champ should be pretty like me.
PF: The trash talk escalated over the years. Ali, who vehemently protested the Vietnam War, capitalized on Frazier’s political allegiances. While Ali spoke out about injustice, he painted Frazier as the establishment.
FRANK RIZZO: Ten years ago if you were to say you were for law and order, you were automatically accused of being a racist. Didn’t stop me, because I know I’m not a racist.
PF: That’s Frank Rizzo, the former Philadelphia police commissioner and mayor infamous for using brutality against communities of color and queer and trans people. Frazier actively supported Rizzo’s campaigns. And he visited Richard Nixon’s White House at the height of the war, a time of extreme polarization.
And Rocky didn’t have to face any of this. He’s a work of fiction — written to be rooted for.
But there’s another reason Rocky’s legacy has eclipsed Frazier’s. Something more commonplace in American history.
Amari and Mark think so.
AJ: You know, if we’re being honest, I certainly think there is a racial element to it.
MK: America’s developed and cherished a fantasy crush on Rocky. One of the enduring tropes of boxing over the years has been a yearning for a white champion. Rocky gave that to them.
PF: It’s something we’re all familiar with — a lack of investment in Black stories, in favor of white ones. Even if the white ones aren’t real.
MK: He was fiction. And he’s been a figure that’s been out there for so long that you almost wonder whether people can separate fact from fiction. Joe couldn’t figure out why people would want to sort of embrace this cartoon figure when they had the real thing right here.
PF: There’s a building in North Philly where it feels like the spirit of Smokin’ Joe lingers. His name is still carved into its stone storefront.
Joe Frazier’s Gym was electric. As his son Marvis would say, Philadelphia is the capital of boxing, and Joe Frazier’s Gym is the White House. Which is why its emptiness today is so striking.
BRENT LEGGS: The first time that I had an opportunity to tour, I was disappointed because I was hopeful that some of the physical remnants would be still visible on the interiors.
PF: Brent Leggs works to save Black historic sites as part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
BL: When you see those classic photographs of what the gym looked like and the way that they decorated the gym, you walk in that building today and you don’t see any of that evidence from the past.
PF: Toward the end of Frazier’s life, he fell on hard times. He got sick, and had money problems. He had to foreclose on the gym. A discount furniture store moved in.
After Frazier died in 2011, Brent got involved in trying to save it.
BL: It had no local designation, and it was vulnerable to demolition. So it was an opportunity for us as preservationists to use tools to protect the gym, but also to elevate Frazier’s life and contribution.
PF: If Brent could get it on the Historic Register, the gym would be protected. He and his team could compel any future owners to maintain the building’s integrity. They wouldn’t be able to tear it down.
BL: We were able to secure that designation in June of 2013.
PF: For now, the gym sits vacant. The furniture store closed too. The building is shuttered to anyone who might have wanted to learn how to box.
But Brent still has hope.
BL: So I think the big dream is finding someone that understands that the gym stands today as a monument, and that monuments can be activated in ways that generate revenue, that supports community programing, but most importantly, that interprets the full life and legacy of an acclaimed American whose contribution in sports history should never be forgotten.
PF: In the city that founded America, Joe Frazier’s neglected gym begs a larger question: How do we as a nation protect Black history?
BL: That’s really the power of historic preservation, is it can reduce the gap between space and time. And when they literally touch the gym building, they are, in essence, touching his memories, his dreams for himself and for his family, and that they are touching his legacy.
PF: We couldn’t go inside Joe Frazier’s Gym. It’s closed to the public.
So we’re going to take you somewhere else. A place across town, where Frazier’s legacy lives on. Where real boxers are celebrated every day, instead of Rocky Balboa.
CRYSTAL CUSTUS: It’s not him that I got a problem with. I just got to. I have an issue with the culture being taken.
PF: Crystal Custus is standing on a sidewalk in West Philly. It’s a hot summer day, and neighbors opened a fire hydrant across the street to stay cool.
[FIRE HYDRANT WATER SOUNDS]
CC: Why not uplift someone who actually did the struggle instead of a character? We couldn’t capitalize off of somebody else’s, you know, culture. But it happens to us so often that it’s disheartening.
PF: Crystal’s not a big fan of the Rocky statue.
CC: It’s not somebody that actually had the accolades, you understand? It’s a movie. It’s not real.
PF: She knows from experience the discipline it takes to become a successful fighter. Her father is Percy “Buster” Custus.
PERCY “BUSTER” CUSTUS: Percy Custus, James Shuler boxing coach. Philadelphia James Shuler Boxing Gym.
PF: A former pro fighter who was inducted into the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame. He’s the owner of the James Shuler Memorial Boxing Gym. Back in the day, Buster was trained by Smokin’ Joe Frazier himself. He’s gone on to train legends like Bernard Hopkins and Tom Witherspoon.
The absence of attention around real, Black boxers in Philadelphia has been a call to action for the Custus family. Their entire gym is a tribute to the real fighters who walked through their doors and trained there. It’s a mission that’s existed from the very beginning, when Buster founded the gym and named it after his friend — another boxer, the late James Shuler.
PBC: James Shuler had got killed that year and I wound up building the gym. And I dreamt, I slept on it and prayed on it. And then I dreamt up a name, and I came up with the name James Shuler. I asked his mother and father and they gave me his belt, his championship belt. And it just took off.
PF: You enter by walking up a steep flight of steps. At the top — surrounded by workout machines and heavy punching bags — there’s this intricate, stained glass collage of James Shuler. An artist created it just for the gym.
CC: I think it’s beautiful and amazing that someone actually decided to make that out of stained glass. He gave that to us for our 25th anniversary. He’s got James’ title on the shorts. And you have colors, beautiful colors: reds, blues, yellows, golds.
PF: Crystal gave us a tour through the rest of the gym, which feels just as much like a museum, a living eulogy, to the people who came before. Entire walls are covered, top to bottom, with framed photos of boxers who trained there.
CC: And then around you see all these photos and these are all people that my dad have built relationships, people that have come through the gym.
PF: Some of these boxers have gone on to the Golden Gloves and the Olympics. Some never made it past the amateurs. But it doesn’t matter. The Shuler Gym still holds space for their memory.
CC: They all don’t go into boxing, but they all say that boxing have contribute to their success, because of the discipline that they learned from being here.
PF: We walked toward a set of lockers. One of them is out of commission. Because it’s a lasting memorial to a boxer named Tobias.
CC: So this is a locker airbrushed with Tobias face. This was Tobias’ locker. My dad used to call him his son. He really was close to us, like a family member. It was crazy because his brother was killed, his son passed away from asthma, and then he was killed. So it was really tragic. So you have this. This is all original to the gym, stemming back 28 years.
PF: The James Shuler Memorial Boxing Gym is the kind of pillar in the community that Frazier’s Gym once was. And just like Frazier’s Gym, it’s the kind of place that could be lost, if it’s not actively protected.
Buster finds something sacred in remembering real fighters.
PBC: Yeah. No, it’s just like, the things I do is spiritually intervention, like the creator make me do stuff. Like I’ll do stuff and I don’t know why I do it. Like I don’t know why I work here, like I work. I just put my time here, I wake up every day, and I give this place some time every day.
ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, I’m very proud to present the former heavyweight champion who knocks out songs now. Smokin’ Joe, Joe Frazier, ladies and gentlemen.
PF: In 1978, Joe Frazier made an appearance on a telethon to raise money for charity.
JF: Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.
PF: He covered the Bill Withers song, “Paint Your Little Picture.”
[JOE FRAZIER STARTS SINGING]
The memory of Joe Frazier isn’t completely lost in Philadelphia. He’s got a statue, a street bearing his name, and a trail dedicated to him and other boxers.
And yet, at the very steps where Joe Frazier trained, a statue of Rocky Balboa attracts millions of visitors every year. A symbol of a fictional, white, working-class hero. It shows that the elevation of some figures comes at the expense of others. There are people we haven’t celebrated. People we have forgotten.
Smokin’ Joe helps us remember.
[JOE FRAZIER SINGING FADES UP]
If you want to learn more about the legacy of Joe Frazier, the people he inspired, and how his story intersects with the Rocky statue, check out our companion documentary — premiering soon on WHYY’s YouTube channel.
Next time on The Statue, we’ll explore the places that created the Rocky legend.
ROSALIND PICHARDO: So we are at Susquehanna and Front Street at the old Rocky Gym.
PF: We’ll take you to the Philly neighborhoods where Rocky lived and trained. A place where residents fight every day for their community — where the stakes are life and death.
ADRIANA ABIZADEH: Like, Kensington does not have the option to give up, because we will be failing an entire neighborhood. We’d be giving up on 32,000 people. That’s insane to think that anyone would do that.
PF: And where the relationships with the Rocky statue are complicated.
MICHELLE ANGELA ORTIZ: Rocky ran through these streets, right? And I always say, you know, we’re just so much more than that.
PF: This is The Statue. I’m your host, Paul Farber. Our producers are Michael Olcott and Michaela Winberg. Our executive producers are Tom Grahsler and Paul Farber. Our engineer is Charlie Kaier.
Sound design and mixing by Jon Ehrens for Rowhome Productions. Rowhome’s executive producers are Alex Lewis and John Myers.
Marketing support is provided by The Podglomerate.
Our tile art was made by William Hodgson. Our theme song is a remix of Bill Conti’s Gonna Fly Now, created by Moqita, that’s Justin Geller and Billy Dufala. Special thanks to Gabriel Coffey, Kayla Watkins, Danya Henninger, Grant Hill, Sophia Schmidt, Jo Anna Van Thuyne, Avi Wolfman-Arent, and the Monument Lab team especially Laurie Allen, Lola Bakare, Aubree Penney, Gebby Keny, Clare Fisher, and Florie Hutchinson.
The Statue is a production of WHYY and part of the NPR podcast network, in partnership with Paul Farber Projects, with in-kind support from Monument Lab. Find us wherever you get your podcasts.collapse
Executive Producers: Tom Grahsler, Paul Farber
Producers: Michael Olcott, Michaela Winberg
Engineer: Charlie Kaier
Sound Design and Mixing: Jon Ehrens for Rowhome Productions
Executive Producers, Rowhome Productions: Alex Lewis, John Myers
Tile Art: William Hodgson
Theme Song: Justin Geller and Billy Dufala of Moqita
Special Thanks to Gabriel Coffey, Kayla Watkins, Danya Henninger, Grant Hill, Sophia Schmidt, Jo Anna Van Thuyne, Avi Wolfman-Arent
Special Thanks to the Monument Lab team including Lola Bakare, Aubree Penney, Gebby Keny, Clare Fisher, Laurie Allen and Florie Hutchinson.
Gonna’ Fly Now by Bill Conti, courtesy of Sony Music
The Statue is a production of WHYY and part of the NPR podcast network, in partnership with Paul Farber Projects and with in-kind support from Monument Lab.collapse
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