Stories From A Life

Been there. Done that. Writing about it.

Sally Swift

Sally Swift
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
June 14
VP, Repartee
Swift Retorts
sally: a journey, a venture, an expression of feeling, an outburst, a quip, a wisecrack ... me


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NOVEMBER 14, 2011 3:08PM

When Joe Frazier Knocked Me Out

Rate: 35 Flag



"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.




Joe and Yank

Yank Durham
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. 


The Handshake
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.

Joe hand 


(Take a minute to watch that video up top. It's really something).


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So long, Joe, from "Sallah." I wish I could shake your hand one more time.
Dang, I'm glad you write here, Sally. A dimension of a boxing legend that most would never have known about.
[smile] Of course you have a Joe Frazier story. Your story is as warm and you describe the man. I could easily picture your meeting in my mind, Smokin' Joe and smokin' hot Sally (somehow had to say it).
That's quite the footnote.
Wow . . . what a memory . . . and what a guy. I love the way you share your brushes with these legendary figures.
The only pay-per-view fight I ever put out hard-earned money for was Frazier-Ali. It was worth every penny. Strange how two men so unalike in so many ways made each other better.
I never met him, but I always thought Joe Frazier was a sweetheart. I hope he did a great job on the eulogy. And I hope he is smiling down on this post.

What an absolutely wonderful story, Sally. About knocked me out.

Did you ever see him box?
What a story Sally, I am posting to FB. R
B Re, thanks so much. I wish more people had known the Joe Frazier I knew. They're hearing about him now, but sadly too late.

Stim, oh yeah, Joe liked the ladies and I'm not talkin' trash here, k... heh

aka, I do what I can.

Owl, this one was surprisingly hard to write. Partly because my memory of the content is dim. But I remember the man as if it were yesterday.

Tom, you picked the best one, that's for sure. Even I remember that fight.

Lezlie, I should have mentioned how pleased he was with that eulogy, he called especially to tell me he "did real good." I hope he's smiling too, and sharing stories with his Daddy and Yank.

Matt, I saw the Frazier-Ali fight on tv, never saw him box in person. Oh wait! I went to his gym a few times to watch the sparring. (Have to say that my strongest memory of a pro boxing gym is the, um, smell).

Thanks, Sheila, you're a peach as always!
Oh Sally! You just blow me away, girl ~r
My favorite boxing match of all time has to be the first Ali Frazier fight where Joe won. This isn't that I'm an Ali detractor, but man that was a fight. Thanks for posting this Sally.
I enjoyed this very much. A story that brings a person to life. Thank you!
"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. "

You couldn't have described him more perfectly. RATED!
I'm married to a fight fan, so I've seen 'me all, many times over, and joe Frazier was a big, big favorite here. You wrote one of the best tributes to a sports guy I've read, and that counts the big shot newspapers. Huge kudos on this one, sally. You nailed it.
Joan, right back atcha, babe!

Seer, it's only a snapshot, but one I cherish.

Bob, I agree, a great fight. Frazier and Ali are both worthy of the term Legend.

Vanessa, bringing a small taste of the real Joe was exactly my goal.

Fay, that's exactly what I hoped my description would do... convey the real man. Thank you for letting me know I succeeded.

Candy, wow, what a compliment. Lots of great mainstream media tributes, but much more focus on the career than the man. That's why I love that vid I included, it's about the whole package.
What a gorgeous piece of writing! Just beautiful. Thank you, and I love your job description and bio. Wish I'd had the panache to come up with something like that, too!
God, Sally, you made me hear him.
I'm with Boanerges. Now THIS is why we struggle upstream to stay with each other at OS.
Excellent post and excellent story. You were lucky to have met him.
I'm glad you wrote this. It confirms what I always thought about Frazier -- he was really a good guy. It's sad that he was treated so harshly by Ali and a big piece of the media. I know he was embittered by that, but it also seems, from what I have heard, that he overcame that in the last decades of his life.
Deborah, thanks so much! And welcome to the fun.

ksal, what a perfect compliment. Exactly what I was aiming for without trying to over-write dialect, which only the very best can pull off.

zumapal, right back at you. I've been away too long, but glad you like this one especially. Means I got it right.

Andy, thank you. I always felt lucky to have met him and honored to have helped him with such a meaningful task. I've ghosted for a lot of people in my day, but Joe was special. It was a collaboration of two really different worlds, and it worked.

Procopius (not using real name, right?), I've always felt sorry for the lack of media approbation he deserved. I've read a lot of the articles about his later life --of course they all come forward now with tributes-- and it seems Joe always managed to pull some joy out of life. I believe he did too.

sophieh, thank you.
This was nice to read. I'm one of those people who grew to an almost adulation of Muhammad Ali. This, in spite of his terrible sportsmanship. He was just such a character, and of course, he beat the government's attempt to punish him for resisting the draft. Joe Frazier had the misfortune of coming to prominence during that era. He was one of the greatest boxers of all time, an unbelievable presence in the ring. As much as the actual fight, Ali tried to get inside his opponents' heads, and it worked all-too-well with Joe Frazier. It lasted the rest of his life. He didn't deserve this. You could tell by looking into his eyes that he was a decent man. He fought clean, and had the determination of a pit bull. We all should do so well. Thanks for the remembrance.
Sally, you have the greatest personal experiences! I remember your story about meeting Bob Dylan next door one day. This is a treasure!! And RIP, Joe!!!
Sometimes Sally I am just plain awestruck by your life. In my limited experience I have seen that most people who are of legendary status publicly are just people at the bottom of it all. Nice to see outside confirmation of that fact.
Hi, Sally, I am glad I caught this article. You helped Smokin' Joe with a speech? I am impressed as he was one of my favorite sport stars. I really enjoyed reading this, especially the visual of the shaking hands.
I'd like to hear that Ali apologized to Joe before he died for all the things he said about him, but I doubt it happened.

I think Joe won 2 out of 3, not 1 out of 3.

Joe Frazier had a reputation of being a gentleman, an honorable man. He took a lot of verbal abuse from Muhammad Ali over the years, so I was astounded to read this in Wikipedia:

"Frazier petitioned U.S. President Richard Nixon to have Ali's right to box reinstated, setting up the whole series of matches. (Frazier had boycotted the 1967 WBA heavyweight elimination tournament to find a successor to Muhammad Ali, after the champion had been stripped of the title.)"

That shows me that Joe Frazier had character too.
@Con: Ali attended Frazier's funeral, for what it's worth.
John, who didn't get sucked into the Ali hype, it was just that good. And even though Frazier was a great boxer, his style (and management) was more low key. He had his share of private fun but really was a decent guy all around.

Ralph, thanks, I don't think Bob Dylan and Joe Frazier together would be a fair fight. ;)

Bob, sometimes I can't believe it myself. Something about being in the right place at the right time I guess.

jane-galpal, if only you could've heard how he said "Sallah." It was so sweet and a little sexy too. Glad to be back, will stay as long as possible before hand surgery sidelines me for a couple months.

Spud, I really ran the gamut when it came to ghosting speeches. Joe was definitely one of my all time favorites. Glad I managed to get across the sense of that handshake; wow, I never saw hands like his before or since.

Con, one of the many articles I read is that Ali did apologize to Joe in recent years, including a public handshake. But I'm guessing it didn't run deep; the unnecessary meanness of his attacks on Frazier took a toll on Joe. He was a decent, forgiving man, but he worked so hard and gave so much back, only to fade away while Ali still got praise... had to be some bitterness there.
Cranky, we crossed. I read about several times Frazier stood up for Ali. To him it was about principle, not personality. He loaned Ali money too and we he was down, Ali refused to return the favor. Joe shrugged it off but it must have stung.

Think about this too... Frazier won our only Olympic gold metal for boxing in 64, a huge achievement. For the 1996 Olympics the torch was run across the country by various celebs. Philly chose to use basketball star Dawn Staley (who hadn't won Olympic gold yet), didn't even invite Joe to the ceremonies -- which were a huge deal, ironically at the Art Museum steps. Then, when the world watched Ali struggle up those final steps to light the Olympic cauldron, Joe was watching outside the stadium... because he wasn't even invited to the ceremony. Sad.
Great story. Frazier seemed so scary in the ring that you tend to think that he would have been scary outside the ring as well. But as I learned the first time I watched an interview with George Foreman - that big, friendly bear of a man - that is obviously not true. It's so easy to be fooled by the myth.