After two miles of roadwork in Philadelphia this morning, Joe Frazier will drive his Cadillac with the license plate "KO" to New York, where reporters will ask one question a hundred ways.
Why fight again?
Five years after his last fight, Frazier is coming back at age 37. At a New York press conference today, the former heavyweight champion will say he most likely will fight Scott LeDoux in mid-November in Minneapolis.
"People say, 'Poor old Joe, why does he want to fight? He's got enough money,' " Frazier said.
Naked, he leaned back on a couch. His body is heavy with softness. His face, always broad and flat, as if shaped by years of getting hit, now slides away from kindly eyes, the flesh yielding to gravity. He speaks in a fighter's rasp, happily earned. The South Carolina sharecropper's son, 6 years old, pounded a feed bag hanging from an oak tree and told his dozen brothers and sisters, "Y'all gonna laugh, but I'm gonna be the next Joe Louis."
The first Joe Frazier sat in a little dressing room behind his Broad Street gym in Philadelphia. A wall-sized photograph shows Frazier knocking down Muhammad Ali in the 14th round in 1971. Frazier won that night. The photo is a daily reminder. Five years after that moment of greatness, Frazier was knocked out by George Foreman with horrifying decisiveness. No pictures of that fight, his last, hang in Frazier's sight, and no pictures of a soft old man remind him his time has passed.
"What do you mean 'my time'?" Frazier said. "How old do you think Larry Holmes is? Says he's 32. He's 34, 35." Frazier's face grew young with a smile. "Looks older than me." As Ali might, Frazier put his fingertips to his fleshy cheek, laughing.
"They make it seem like a sad situation," Frazier said. "Let 'em. I don't give a damn. I do appreciate the genuine concerns of my fans. Tell them I won't get hurt. Some young fighters can put you down for a 10 count, but I don't see any dangers. I haven't seen anyone with a devastating punch that could chill you.
"I won't get hurt because I love my life, being part of my sons. My daughters, when they were little, would think I was getting killed. Now they know more. They didn't want me to come back at first, but now they're grown up and behind me. If I didn't think I could do the job, why go out there again?"
Why go out there, Joe?
"I know my ability better than anyone. They say Smokey can't train," said the warrior who burned so fiercely they called him Smokin' Joe. "They don't know me. I get my boys up at 4 in the morning to run. Mickey Walker and Jersey Joe Walcott didn't win their titles until they were 40. And men today are wiser, faster, better."
Why, Joe, why?
"Because the heavyweight situation is bad today. I can do the job. In the gym, sparring, running, I feel great. I have energy to do things that don't make money, so I'll use it fighting. If somebody had to stick pins in my butt every morning to get me to run, I wouldn't come back. But an angel wakes me up in my right mind, and I can go to work."
It is, Joe Frazier says, no sad situation.
"It's a happy situation," he said, "because I know I can do this. Ali had to know he couldn't do it, the way he looked with Holmes. I can do it."
He wants to get back to the title.
"I'm not hurting financially or physically. I never took cocaine or pills. Just some beer. I have investments. I don't have to come back. I want to do it and can do it and will do it. And it don't much matter what anybody cares or thinks, because there ain't nobody going out there in the ring but me."
That, finally, is what this is about. We want our heroes the way we want them. But our heroes want, and deserve, their own lives. We wanted Willie Mays flying forever in memory, but he chose to play until he stumbled in the dirt on all fours. Ali danced for us, and now, by his choice, moves on leaden feet. They want the music to last forever, and we know it can't, but who among us doesn't want the song to go on always?
If Joe Frazier, a decent man, wants to fight at 37, to do the work that moved him from a sharecropper's shack to a millionaire's mansion, our melancholy is as nothing against his happiness.
Frazier is comfortable financially. He has real estate income. He rents out limousines, owns a restaurant, the gym and some fighters, including his son Marvis, 21, a rising heavyweight.
"This is my first day back as a fighter," Joe Frazier said Monday afternoon. "No more training my fighters. Seven weeks to get ready."
Frazier left home that night to move into a Philadelphia hotel.
He said goodbye to his wife.
"I have a job to do," he said. "I will sacrifice. No more boogying for seven weeks."
He ordered a terrycloth robe for his November job.
He runs every morning, works out every afternoon. He weighs 236 and wants to be 218. His best weight was 205. Now he says weight doesn't indicate condition; he looks for sharpness of reflexes. He says he is sharp because he never really left the ring.
After Foreman knocked him out in '76, Frazier started a rock 'n roll group, "Joe Frazier and the Knockouts." In '78, as it became apparent he couldn't sing well, Frazier trained for Kallie Knoetze. But he contracted hepatitis and the bout was canceled.
By then, the proud papa was busy as Marvis Frazier's manager-trainer-sparring partner.
With today's huge paydays, Joe Frazier again thought of a comeback. In 1971, he earned $2.5 million with Ali. Now welterweights make three times that, and Frazier tested himself in the ring against Marvis and a nephew, Rodney Frazier.
"I've seen one guy get $10 million for doing nothing (Ali against Holmes), I've seen one man stand in the corner for $7 million (Tommy Hearns against Ray Leonard) and I've seen one man jump out of the ring and walk down the aisle for $5 million (Roberto Duran against Leonard)," Frazier said.
Frazier laughed. "Hell, I can do that."
And he can do more, Frazier says. "I don't see nothing to stop me now. I'm trying to throw more right hands than I used to. And now I know how to fight. I can make a guy fight himself to death, and then I'll get him in the last minute of a round. I won't be coming in all the time like I used to. I'll breathe on him only when I need to."
From Marvis Frazier: "Pop looks good to me. He feels strong. He's still got his speed with his punches and his timing is good. And he's hard to hit."
One last question for Joe, sprawled softly on his couch: how good are you today?
"How good am I? Well, uh . . . "
He stopped to get a towel.
"I would say, uh . . . "
He stopped to shout at someone whose radio was too loud.
Then he changed the subject, never answering the question. When he went downstairs to shadow box, his movement caused a clock to fall off the wall. He picked it up to see if the second hand still moved.
It did. Time is flying, the poet Virgil wrote, irretrievably flying.