Cigars, Whiskey, and Joe Frazier

By Wrigley Brogan on September 5, 2018
Cigars, Whiskey, and Joe Frazier
Joe Frazier was neither friendly nor unfriendly. He just “was.” (Photo: Wrigley Brogan)

My Buddhist nature wanted to tell him that all misery, all sorrow, lies in the past, that there is only becoming. To live today one must release the past…

A sheen of sadness covered Joe Frazier, an impenetrable gloss holding in a darkness blind to everyone else, a constant squeezing that caused his breath to come in short whispers. He sat in a corner behind a small table, a wide brimmed hat on his head, a cigar pinched between his lips. Two pens rested on a napkin. A whisky, tan and glistening, brushed against his hands, hands that had earned him a world’s Heavyweight championship and powered by a pit bull’s heart and murderous determination.

He was the guest at the Legend’s Casino in Toppinish, Washington—a big boxing star at a small boxing show. Fans moved in cautiously and haltingly asked for an autograph. Other people kept their distance cowed by the once vicious beast. He was as big, as black, and as powerful as Sonny Liston, but without the reputation for evil. Once asked for an autograph, would he spring forward with vicious intent, or sit back and smile?

Generally he did neither. He remained stoic and removed, a man caught in deep thought or some kind of dream. He was neither friendly nor unfriendly. He just “was.” Occasionally he grinned a bit, especially at pretty women. He signed bits of paper, napkins, old boxing magazines. He seemed reluctant to talk as if his voice might not go the distance.

Mentioning Muhammad Ali pained him more than a hard right cross and he flinched backward and shook his head trying to regain his senses at the very sound. That, he would talk about, a low guttural moan, the words prying through clenched teeth as they whistled into the air. His eyes rolled back. His nostrils flared. His fists clenched and his breath emerged in quirky whirlwinds of destruction. Joe Frazier hated him.

This was not a momentary hatred. This hatred had spiked itself to his ribs and grew by constantly feeding off his memory and emotions. Frazier was stuck in the past, caught in a time warp with Ali’s verbal abuse.

The old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never harm me” did not apply to Frazier. Just the opposite applied. He could be hit with boulders, tree trunks, iron railroad tracks, even the freight trains on the tracks, nothing physical hurt him. It was words that broke him down, tore him apart, left him cocooned in anger and sadness.

I came prepared to talk to Frazier, a bundle of cigars in my hand: Montecristo, CAO, H. Upmann, Partagas, Romeo Y Julieta, and Perdromo. Cigarettes are the currency of street people, cigars of boxers. James Tony once stretched my bank account to the limit smoking the best cigars he could find, as long as I bought.

I offered my hand, and the cigars to Frazier. The rough knobby knuckles were in contrast to his palm, a slightly cool touch and remarkably soft like pampered glove leather or a society lady who had never known work, not the stiff boot leather of a heavyweight champion. He took the cigars, gave them a brief smell, then laid them out in order of size, stiff little soldiers ready for inspection.

This great boxer had fought the best of the era: Oscar Bonavena, Eddie Machen, Doug Jones, George Chuvalo, Buster Mathis, Jerry Quarry, Jimmy Ellis, Bob Foster, George Foreman, and Muhammad Ali, all remarkable heavyweights. I pulled the names randomly as if from a hat. “Were you bothered by the slickness of Bob Foster?” He shook his head no. Would Machen have given you ore trouble had he been in his prime?” “Not really.” “Was George the hardest hitter you ever faced?” “No.”

Dragging anything from his was pure torture. “So, who was the hardest hitter?” A shrug. “What did Ali say that hurt you so much?” It was time to stand back as a fury of words, fired by anger, flamed from his mouth. Ali was no gentleman. Frazier had helped him on many occasions; and how did he repay him? Disrespect. Total disrespect. He went on and on, the whiskey going down in gulps, the cigar smoke in a forest fire of flame.

My Buddhist nature wanted to tell him that all misery, all sorrow, lies in the past, that there is only becoming. To live today one must release the past. Frazier could not do that. He had gripped the past so tightly it had almost become ingrown.

I think he was drunk the entire time we were together, but I could not say for sure. Some people hold their liquor better than others. One thing was certain, no amount of drink could drown Ali’s words.

I left him several days later as I had found him, sitting in the corner, a whiskey in one hand, a cigar in another. I don’t remember much about Ali’s nasty words to Frazier. I do remember their three great fights. That is a part of the past I want to remember.

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  1. Chico Salmon 12:17pm, 09/06/2018

    Pete The Sneak… Joe was an honorable human being. Ali had a mean streak in him and like Joe, he had a lot of pride.  Joe won the “Battle Of The Century,” embarrassed Ali on the world stage, so score one for Smokin’ Joe. I don’t think Ali ever got over that one.

  2. Robert Ecksel 10:53am, 09/06/2018

    Thanks R. You got good eyes. Appreciate it…

  3. Robert 10:22am, 09/06/2018

    Always enjoy your articles—-Looks like you are using Foremans name in place of Fraziers at the end of the article on two occasions

  4. Pete The Sneak 10:02am, 09/06/2018

    Chico, great post on smoking Joe’s sensitivity and how Ali used that against him…On your question about who hit him harder than Foreman, I once heard Joe Frazier say that the hardest punch he ever felt was the the one that Tyson hit his son Marvis with to end their fight. Totally understood…Peace.

  5. Kid Blast 09:01am, 09/06/2018

    Great guy. My interactions with him were great memories for me. He was a down-to-earth as any boxer I have ever met except for Johnny Tapia. Humble and accessible and very decent.

    Joe was like Sara Lee. Nobody didn’t like him.

  6. Chico Salmon 08:36am, 09/06/2018

    Sure would like to know who hit Frazier harder than George Foreman. I guess we will never know now.

  7. Chico Salmon 05:38am, 09/06/2018

    Remember seeing an interview with Bob Foster and he commented on how after picking Frazier up at the airport,  Joe sat in his car and chugged a bottle of scotch like it was water. Frazier was still actively fighting at the time, and Foster told him that drinking like that would have a toll on his fighting career. Frazier answered that fighting was a mindset and that the liquor wouldn’t be a burden to his performing in the ring. As strong as Joe was physically, he was a very sensitive man. If only he had the mental strength of his good friend and former sparring mate, Ken Norton. Norton is the one man that Ali could never control mentally. Ali was smart enough to know that Joe took his verbal jabs to heart, so I do think there was malice in his attacks and that they weren’t done simply to build the gate. Joe was a decent man and he surely didn’t deserve to be humiliated publicly like that by Ali. RIP Mr. Frazier.

  8. Pete The Sneak 04:51am, 09/06/2018

    Another Gem Mr. Brogan. Great stuff! I had the extreme pleasure of meeting Joe Frazier at a boxing event at MSG in NYC many years ago and the man was nothing but cordial and respectful with both my wife and I. Signed autographs,  took pictures and asked how we were doing all with a smile. Yes, he did take a ton of verbal abuse from Ali back in those days. Ali always said it was to sell tickets, but as Frazier always said, their fights were always sold out, so it wasn’t about the money. The verbal attacks by Ali, who was the best trash talker in sports at that time (and Frazier was the opposite, soft spoken and never bragged) didn’t so much bother Frazier himself, but more so what it did to his family. Frazier would have to come home and see his kids crying cause they were constantly getting into fights in school and were picked on and made fun of cause their dad was an ‘Uncle Tom’ (a terrible phrase that Frazier despised) and a ‘Gorilla.’ I don’t care who you are, having to see your kids go through stuff like that would definitely create a deep seated hatred for the person responsible. I don’t think Joe ever got over that and despite his ‘cleaning up’ his disdain for Ali over the last years of his life, most of it was an act and the hate for Ali never wavered. Tough way to live indeed, but understandable nevertheless, even though both of them will always be connected through eternity, which probably incensed Joe as well…Peace.

  9. Asher 03:23am, 09/06/2018

    That’s a beautiful piece of writing, Wrigley. You really know how to string some impactful sentences together. May Frazier - and his left hook - rest in peace.

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