"Go out there...and make smoke come from those gloves. You can make smoke, boy. Just don't let up." Yank Durham, Joe Frazier's trainer (That pep talk created the nickname 'Smokin' Joe).
Another legend has left us. Not a rock star or a corporate genius or a renowned statesman. Not even known as a legend by GenX or GenY or the current iGen. To those who remember, heavyweight Boomer boxer Joe Frazier made a legendary mark on sports and sportsmanship.
Born in South Carolina but a lifelong Philadelphian, Smokin Joe made a big impression on me. In fact he knocked me out ... not with his powerful left hook but with personal warmth and charm. I only knew him briefly a long time ago, but I'll never forget him.
After the 1964 Olympics, where Joe Frazier won the USA's only boxing gold medal, Frazier turned pro. His trainer Yancey "Yank" Durham helped put together "Cloverlay," a group of Philly businessmen, including the local CBS station chief, to invest in Frazier's career.
Durham and Frazier had a deep personal relationship. In addition to being Joe's chief trainer and manager, Yank was also his mentor and surrogate father. In today's world we might call him Joe's "life coach" too. (I'd give anything to hear Joe's raucous guffaws at that 'fancy ass' term).
Yancy Durham died in August 1973. His family asked Joe to give the eulogy at Durham's funeral. That's where I came in. Joe had little education or polish and wanted some help with a speech that, as he put it, "sounds like me, not some high tone fancy ass who knows nothin' about nothin'."
Jack Downey, the CBS station head and a major Cloverlay investor, as well as a local legend himself, asked me to work with Joe on the eulogy. Me. A young, white Jewish girl. Sure, I was a writer, but I seemed an odd choice.
I knew about Joe Frazier, had seen him on TV and in the news. But I knew very little about boxing, didn't even like it. Jack Downey knew Joe very well.
As it turned out, for a collaboration on Yank Durham's eulogy, I was Joe Frazier's perfect corner man.
The Thrilla in Phila
They gave me a small office at CBS's WCAU for the week-long task. It was a real office, with walls and a door. But no windows. I left the door open so I could look across the newsroom to the wall of glass on the other side. See trees, daylight, sun.
I was sitting at the desk reading some background material on Yancy Durham when that whole bright world disappeared. Eclipsed by a man standing in the doorway who literally blocked out the sun.
Joe Frazier wasn't all that tall, a bit under 6 feet. But he was --even to a girl who'd dated college football players-- HUGE. I had never seen anyone that massive up close.
I jumped to my feet and took an involuntary step back. Then he smiled and asked in his singular speech pattern, a mixture of dusty Southern country and slick urban streets, "Hey gurrl, you Sallah?"
I wish you could have seen that smile. Heard that deep, soft voice, sensed the shyness mixed with confidence, the quiet dignity, the bluff in the gruff. I wish you could have felt the pull of his presence, the power of his charm.
My most enduring memory is of shaking his hand. It was calloused and somehow soft at the same time, and, most amazing ... my own hand simply disappeared inside. I can still see it in my mind's eye, Joe's enormous paw completely engulfing my fingers and palm, all the way up past my wrist.
It felt like a normal handshake. He didn't hurt me. But we both realized I was staring in wonder at the space where my hand should have been. We looked at each other, down at our clasped hands, back at each other and then Joe said, "What they call it? Beauty and the Beast?" We started laughing till tears ran down our faces.
That was the ice-breaker and just the deal maker we needed to bond over a sad, difficult task. We joked about shaking hands every day as Joe talked about his own life and Yank Durham. We worked together to make Joe's words mean all he wanted for his beloved friend.
I wish I could find a copy of that eulogy, but I can't. I wish I remembered it, but I don't. I remember more a funny, kind, loving, gentle giant who strove to do right by a man who'd done so much for him.
Joe Frazier's work ethic and dedication and "go the distance" determination --depicted throughout the movie Rocky-- extended past boxing to his family, friends, those less fortunate, especially kids. He lived large but he also gave back.
Joe Frazier's funeral is being held in Philadelphia. He will be laid to rest in his hometown of Beaufort, South Carolina after a public viewing and a private service for family and close friends.
I won't be there. I didn't attend Yancy Durham's funeral either (Joe said it would make him nervous). But my thoughts and prayers are with his family. And with an extraordinarily uncommon "common man" who briefly touched my life. And left a knockout impression.
(Take a minute to watch that video up top. It's really something).