Smokin’ Joe Frazier: When the Smoke Clears

By Robert Ecksel on February 12, 2012
Smokin’ Joe Frazier: When the Smoke Clears
Todd said “The rivalry with Ali kind of fractured Joe’s relationship with his own community”

“If Joe was hurt by the Ali rivalry, I don’t think—unlike what other people have written or other films suggested—that Joe was bitter…”

Because boxing is such a historically rich subject for cinema, filmmakers in every weight class have donned gloves and satin trunks and given it their best shot. Bona fide classics like” Raging Bull” and “When We Were Kings” may be among the top-10 heavyweight champs of all time. But there are also contenders to keep things competitive.

The documentary “Joe Frazier: When the Smoke Clears” examines the life and career of the legendary heavyweight champion who made the arduous journey from Beaufort, South Carolina, to Manila and beyond.

I saw the film at a New York preview screening in May. It felt in some ways less like a boxing documentary—in part because the filmmakers’ tight budget—than a film about a bluesman, say Robert Johnson or John Lee Hooker, with its unpretentious, earthy, down home ambience.

Frazier was present during the screening, “which was the only time Joe saw it really,” the director Mike Todd told me. He appeared a bit frail, but was as good-natured and clearheaded as ever, and described the documentary as being something that “really lets people see a true picture of what I am about and where I am coming from.”

“When the Smoke Clears” took four years to complete. Among those who gave onscreen commentary about the great Joe Frazier were his son Marvis, who described the film as “touching and beautiful,” George Foreman, Bernard Hopkins, Angelo Dundee, George Benton, Larry Holmes, Larry Merchant, and of course Smokin’ Joe himself.

When I spoke to the director last week, I congratulated him for a job well done before peppering him with questions. The first thing I wanted to know about was the genesis of the project.

“We started out with a very loose idea,” said Todd. “We were looking to do a boxing film. We really wanted to do a film that captured the culture of a boxing gym and how important it can be within a community. And very early on we saw that Joe was still running the gym in Philadelphia. I thought, well, actually we could do it about Joe’s gym. I started to read about the work Marvis was doing in the prisons and where Joe’s gym was located, and it just seemed the obvious thing to in a way root Joe’s story with his work in the gym.

“He was committed to boxing as a sport. He experienced himself how you could change your life and turn your life around. It offered him an opportunity that he would never have had. I don’t think any other sport could have given Joe what boxing gave him. He just felt it was the thing he knew best and he could help people through the sport. That someone with such a name, that they should still be in a neighborhood where Joe’s gym was, gives hope to people who might otherwise feel abandoned.”

Mike Todd spent a huge amount of time with Frazier and I asked him to share his impressions of Smokin’ Joe.

“Joe, to me—to anyone who’s even remotely a fan of boxing or knows anything about the sport—is one of the most iconic figures, not just in boxing but in any sport, in terms of key rivalries of the 20th century. I think the Ali-Frazier rivalry is among the top of them all. When I first met him, Joe pretty much represented as much of a legendary status as you could have. But I think that whoever was able to spend time with him or got to know him was amazed by how down to earth he was. This is something George Foreman said me as well, how almost unaffected Joe was by the life he had, how unchanged he was, how true to himself he was. He was very, very good to people, very, very easy to talk to. I found him a fascinating character to be around. I think maybe, for whatever reason, he didn’t trust everybody at first. But we were with him so long—we filmed for over two years—and we wanted to understand Joe and say something about Joe as a human being, everything he’d been through, from how he grew up through his rivalry with Ali to the work he did in Philadelphia, why he committed the final years of his life to keeping the gym open without any financial backing whatsoever to do it.

“If Joe was hurt by the Ali rivalry—and I certainly think he was—I don’t think, unlike what other people have written or other films suggested, that Joe was bitter. He was affected by that rivalry, but more as a frustration in how he was seen or how he was remembered. For me the biggest issue was that the rivalry with Ali kind if fractured Joe’s relationship with his own community. I think the story of his work in the gym gives Joe his name back, so people can understand what motivated him outside of the limelight.”

Joe’s son Marvis, himself a one-time heavyweight contender, has a significant role in “When the Smoke Clears.”

“Marvis was an important character,” Todd said, “not just because he is very articulate, but because he was a key person in terms of the gym, his commitment to the young people of Philadelphia, his work with the people in the prisons there. Marvis was an important part of Joe’s legacy himself, just the way he was as a son. The relationship they had was so close. The film is actually narrated by Marvis because we felt we didn’t really want to make it too artificial with a narrator just reading what we scripted, but rather we based it around things that Marvis told us. We thought who knows Joe better than his own son? That relationship between those two is a central part of the film, as is the fact that Marvis was so desperate to keep the gym open in Philadelphia. He felt, and I think quite rightly so, that the gym should be kind of a legacy to his father, both as a fighter and what he did as a boxer, but also as a commitment to the community.”

George Foreman, the congenial former heavyweight champion, won the title from Frazier in Kingston, Jamaica, so the two men have history.

“We went over to interview George in Houston. George has his boxing gym there. He’s got a normal place to work out that has three buildings to it. But the actual boxing gym is in a building called the Joe Frazier Building, which I think says something about how George revered Joe. As George said to us, as far as boxing goes, ‘Joe Frazier is the hardest working man in the business.’”

Bernard Hopkins, who not long ago broke George Foreman’s longstanding record as the oldest man in boxing to ever win a legitimate title, seemed an unlikely man to talk about Joe Frazier, who was old enough to be his father. I wondered why Hopkins was in the film and his connection to Frazier.

Todd pointed out that Hopkins was included “because our story is very much centered in Philadelphia and it’s based around Joe’s life while the gym was still open. Bernard Hopkins had been involved with that gym when he was very young, when he was first out of prison. I think Bernard Hopkins gives a really good perspective on how perhaps Philadelphia didn’t really appreciate what they had with Joe’s presence in the city and the importance of that gym as a landmark, and how much it helped people in that area. Bernard Hopkins had a good understanding from his own background and everything’s he’s been through what a significant role boxing can play in shaping people’s lives.”

The legendary trainer Angelo Dundee, who recently passed away at the ripe old age of 90, also agreed to be interviewed for the Frazier documentary. His connection to Joe is obvious, since he was Ali’s longtime trainer.

“Angelo was very, very willing to talk,” said Todd. “When I first spoke to him on the phone, as soon as I told him what we were planning to do, that we wanted to do Joe’s story, he said to me, ‘Now that’s a real story.’ He’s a fantastic character. We met at the Boxing Hall of Fame in upstate New York at Canastota. He was there at their annual induction ceremony. I think he recognized, although he was very much aware that Joe was a rival of the Ali camps, what a formidable foe Joe was. But also I think he had a great deal of respect for Joe as a person. He was in his late-80s when we interviewed him, and he was still training people, was still active and sharp, very much a larger than life character.”

Another larger than life character who participated in “When the Smoke Clears” was Philly’s own George Benton.

“George Benton was one of the top Philadelphia fighters to never fight for a title. He was known as the Mayor of Philadelphia and he was in Joe’s corner in the Thrilla in Manila. When we spoke to George he was already suffering from Alzheimer’s. He was not in the best of shape. But as soon as we started talking about Joe and the Thrilla in Manila, he was very, very sharp and very clear.”

Former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, aka the Easton Assassin, is as good a talker as he was a fighter, and he jumped at the opportunity to talk about Joe Frazier.

“Larry Holmes was in there,” Todd explained, “because he connected to the era. But he was also Joe’s sparring partner. And his fight with Marvis was kind of a poignant moment I suppose, slightly sad because Joe was criticized for pushing Marvis too soon. But as Larry Holmes said, ‘How much is too soon when they’re paying you a million dollars?’ I think Larry Holmes, again like George Foreman, was so keyed to talk about Joe, had such an affection for Joe, that he just wanted to make it clear to us how much he felt for Joe. He thought that Joe deserved recognition for what he’d done, and perhaps had not been given the credit he deserved. Not so much as a fighter. I think everyone knew how good Joe was. But the fact that Joe always had to be tied into the rivalry with Ali, when Joe’s life was so much more than just that. That’s where we were trying to come from, and I think Larry Holmes felt the same thing—that everything Joe had done and everything Joe had achieved was enough to stand on its own.”

I lastly asked Mike Todd about Larry Merchant. Merchant has his detractors, as any good journalist should, but I believe that when HBO replaced him with Max Kellerman, they replaced poetry with prose.

“He was exactly the same,” said Todd about Merchant. “People had been waiting a long time to speak about Joe. Because when I spoke to Larry Merchant the first time, he said, ‘If you’re doing a film about Joe, you’re doing God’s work.’ Those were his words to me. We went out to see him in L.A. for our first interview. And he met us again in Las Vegas around the Taylor-Pavlik fight. He spent a lot of time with us, as much as we needed. I think he—because he was a young journalist in Philadelphia as Joe came up, because his career to some extent ran parallel to Joe, he rose to success the same time Joe did—he very much identified with Joe. What many people didn’t know or don’t know is that Larry Merchant was a member of Cloverlay when Cloverlay was set up. As a young journalist, Larry Merchant had bought shares in Joe the fighter, as he explained in the film. So I think he felt very close to Joe and his career and certainly always wanted to make sure that he gave it enough time, because he felt that Joe Frazier was an important boxing story.”

Joe Frazier’s story is an important boxing story. If you haven’t yet seen “When the Smoke Clears,” do yourself a favor and watch it now. You won’t be disappointed.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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  1. TEX HASSLER 09:34am, 02/18/2012

    Joe Frazier’s dedication to boxing and to training hard made his the great fighter he was. Joe paid the price to get in top shape like few men who have ever lived. If the Klitschko brothers had contenders who trained like Joe Frazier then they would have competitive fights. The K Brothers also work hard at learning their trade and staying is shape. Joe Frazier’s influence on boxing will always be here and felt. Rest in peace Joe Frazier, your fight is over.

  2. Mike 07:01am, 02/18/2012

    I eagerly await this documentary—and it’s LONG overdue.  Why the hell can’t they make a movie of Joe’s life and career for the big screen?  Hollywood ONLY loved Ali apparently.  Joe’s story is made for the silver screen; wish I had the money to fund it.  Don King ought to part with some of his millions and fund movies for some of the great fighters of the past who truly deserve full-length feature films.  It’s a good thing Joe has passed on; because SMOKING is so frowned upon these days!!!  haha Thanks for the memories Joe; God bless you and your family; and no doubt ALL the boxing family is missing you dearly too.

  3. Don from Prov 09:51am, 02/13/2012

    I’ll always remember Joe being referred to as a “truth telling machine”—and that he was.

    If someone wasn’t prepared to fight hard for every minute of every round,  Joe would bring the truth to them that they did not belong in the business of boxing.

    P.S.  What is the Liston/Merchant deal????



  4. john coiley 03:37am, 02/13/2012

    I look forward with bated breath to seeing this documentary, anticipating a profoundly poignant, sensitive, deeply intense and emotional work sure to bring on the tears of memory. Those were the glory days for sure.

  5. Tony Capoocia 02:48am, 02/13/2012

    Joe just doesn’t get the Credit he should get. He fought at a time when the HW Div was stacked. He lost some and won many. Always fought the best out there. Never would look to duck anyone.

  6. the thresher 12:07pm, 02/12/2012

    Thanks, Mike

  7. Mike Todd 11:47am, 02/12/2012

    Thanks a lot for taking the time to talk to us about the film Robert. Great piece. We just want as many people as possible to see the film and that it can, even in a small way, contribute to Joe’s legacy and how he’s remembered. Anyone interested can follow updates about the film at

  8. the thresher 10:22am, 02/12/2012

    Too bad Sonny Liston is not around to tell us what he thinks about Merchant.

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