The news that came down early this morning that former heavyweight boxing champion "Smokin'" Joe Frazier was under hospice care, nearing the end of a battle with liver cancer, certainly hit close to home for a multitude of reasons.
For one, Frazier was my favorite boxer as a little kid. He was a relentless warrior in the ring, a man who defied the odds. He was considered too small to become the heavyweight champ, but he managed to overcome that stereotype to win the title in the early 1970s.
I also vividly remember Monday, March 8, 1971. I was a fourth grader, but already a huge sports fan. My father knew that and encouraged by love of sports at every opportunity. If he was still around today, he would have totally enjoyed the fact that I basically have a poor-paying hobby as a sportswriter and not a real job so to speak.
Anyway, on that day, my father was insistent that I had to get my homework done. I never asked why, but he was on top of it all day. My father worked for the city of Jersey City in the automotive department and had the night shift, working from 4 p.m. to midnight. He always had dinner with us, but went back to work and came home long after I was in bed.
So that day, I asked him why he was so intent on me getting my homework done. He said, ``Well, isn't that fight tonight?" He was referring to the first of the trilogy of wars between Frazier and Muhammad Ali that was set for that night at Madison Square Garden.
I told my father that I planned on listening to the fight on my little transistor radio that I used to put under my pillow. That little transistor allowed me to envision Madison Square Garden in my head, thanks to the voice of Marv Albert. Marvelous Marv allowed me to dream of the Knicks, the days of DeBusschere, Bradley, Reed and Clyde, when I loved the NBA. Now, it's like root canal. Better yet, what is the NBA?
My father said, ``Good, I just want to make sure you get your homework done."
I always did my homework, so I didn't know why he was so insistent.
He then came home from work and told me that we were going for a ride. I never missed a chance to go anywhere with my father, so I just grabbed my coat and headed for the car.
We started driving and I asked him where we were going.
``Don't ask so many questions,'' he said.
We headed for the Holland Tunnel. I asked why we were going to New York. I also said I wanted to be home in time for the fight.
``Don't worry,'' he said. We kept driving and we were close to the Garden. He then reached into his pocket and pulled out two tickets to the fight.
Sure, it's not the most conventional sporting event for a 10-year-old, but I was with my father. The place was packed and we were sitting in the general vicinity of big celebrities, like Frank Sinatra and Soupy Sales./ Hey, at that time, Soupy was a legend in my eyes.
Well, my man Joe Frazier won the fight, knocked down Ali in an epic battle. It is one of my fondest memories of being with my father, who was sick, dead and gone from cancer some eight months later.
I followed Frazier throughout the many storied moments. I went to the Stanley Theater in Jersey City and paid $20 to see the closed circuit viewing of Ali-Frazier III, the fight known as "The Thriller in Manila." I was about 13 or 14 then and was alone in a theater with a packed audience of rabid adults. But it was my money and I wanted to see it. I remember scoring the fight on a notebook in the dark (the sportswriter in me was already in full bloom) and thinking Frazier had the fight won if he could last the 15th round.
Battered, his eyes almost closed shut, Frazier's trainer Eddie Futch called an end to the fight and Ali won via technical knockout after 14 rounds. It was a fight that took years off the lives of both boxers. It was a brutal, physical, epic war.
There were other memorable moments, like Frazier showing off his lack of swimming skills during ABC's Superstars competition, his fight with George Foreman with Howard Cosell's memorable call of "Down goes Frazier, down goes Frazier," and his return to boxingn managing son Marvis' career.
Joe Frazier was always someone I followed and admired.
Flash forward to 1994. Tracey Tullock, a girl who I coached when she was in grammar school at my alma mater St. Paul's of Greenville in Jersey City, was in need of a costly heart operation in St. Louis. Her father asked me if I could help organize a fundraiser to help defray the cost of the surgery.
So I agreed to help and decided to see if I could get some assistance in raising money. I called my friend, the late Willie Wolfe, who was one of the most generous people I've ever known.
Whenever I needed anything, Willie was always there. He had a lot of connections in the sports world, including several members of the 1969 Miracle Mets, some former Giants and a bunch of boxers.
When I told Willie I was helping with the fundraiser for Tracey, he told me I could have anything I wanted. The next day, he arrived at my front door with a garbage bag full of memorabilia to raffle off. There were autographed pictures galore from the Mets, the Giants, and boxers. There were at least fiven boxing gloves autographed by both Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Willie had a close relationship with the former champ Smokin' Joe.
When he arrived at my door with that bag, I was flabbergasted with the generosity. He asked me if there was anything else he could do. Willie had already been his generous giving self.
"How about if I bring Smokin' Joe to the event?" Willie said.
I was amazed. The former heavyweight champion of the world was going to a fundraiser for a Jersey City girl he never even met.
Sure enough, Frazier arrived with Wolfe at the Jersey City Moose Lodge to sign autographs. All of the proceeds of his appearance went to help Tracey.
And Frazier had a great time, signing autographs and mingling with the people. He even got up to dance and did the Electric Slide with young Tracey and myself. Yes, I danced the Electric Slide with Joe Frazier.
Tracey had the surgery. She's doing well, healthy and living life with her children.
So when I heard Frazier was nearing the end of his life today, I remembered what he meant to me as a young sports fan and what he meant to a young girl who needed medical help.
For that, Joe Frazier will always remain a major part of my life. If the Lord calls him home, then Frazier goes to the Lord with knowledge that he was a generous, giving soul, just like his friend, Willie Wolfe, who is so sorely missed.
You can read more of my work at www.hudsonreporter.com, www.theobserver.com and www.dailyrecord.com.
The Hudson Reporter this week features a tribute to my good friend Vinnie Ascolese, who announced that he is retiring as the head football coach at North Bergen at the end of the season. Ascolese was honored tonight, when the township renamed Bruins Stadium after him. I wish I could have been there, but other commitments kept me away.
It's a tribute that was a long time coming, but I'm glad that North Bergen decided to honor Vinnie while he's still here to enjoy it.
I'll have more on my relationship with Ascolese in a blog to follow.