It starts with a little wave or a handshake, then an old acquaintance walks up to a fellow with history on his side and gives him the biggest pair of eyes and a dusty kiss right smack on the lips.
The old acquaintance this Monday noon is wearing a pearl necklace and a red floral dress, with a design as manic as anything you've ever seen on patio furniture. She has come to reintroduce herself to a man she met some time ago, a fellow who now looks as tired and worn as an old catcher's mitt. His name is Joe Frazier and he once was the heavyweight champion of the world.
The woman, who also happens to be the only person in the gym wearing a dress, wants to know if the old fighter remembers her name and the place where they first met. "You know me, Joe?" she starts.
Poor Frazier. He'd probably like to know everybody in the world and have them over for barbecue and potato salad if only for time. "Yeah, I know you," he says. "Nice to see you again."
The woman and her friends arrived at Joe Frazier's Gym off Broad Street at about lunchtime and found a half-dozen folding chairs to sit on, most of them wooden and missing slats in the seats. They ignored the sign that said, Positively NO!!! Admittance Without $2 Fee, and spent a good hour studying the blown-up portraits of Frazier hung helter-skelter on the south wall: Smokin' Joe standing there sweating, Smokin' Joe working the speed bag, Smokin' Joe on the scales at a weigh-in, Smokin' Joe approaching the ring before a fight, Smokin' Joe sitting in a pool of light on a darkened stage, Smokin' Joe throwing a left hook at somebody's chin, Smokin' Joe never taking, Smokin' Joe only giving, Joe, Joe, Joe. And Joe again.
"You know my name, Joe?" the lady asks.
It is kindly and a little sad, the way Frazier taps his skull and says, "I know you, the face. I never forget a face," and turns to shake the hand of a farmer from Georgia who is wearing a hat that sports a rich flush of rooster feathers.
"It's Jean," Jean says. And Joe Frazier says, "I told you I knew you, Jean," then walks over to where his son, Marvis Frazier, himself a fighter, is standing over a garbage can, spitting out a mouthful of mineral water. The old champ does a little dance and sings,
I'm lookin' here an' there
I'm searchin' eva'where
I'm lookin' for a love
. . . to call ma yown . . .
This is the way Joe Frazier likes to live: in the gym that bears his name and probably always will bear his name, in a town made for fighters, with his sons, Marvis and Joe Jr., and his two nephews, Rodney and Mark, and wearing the worst clothes. He wears unmatching argyle socks and day-glo bright running shoes and a raggedy old slicker suit pulled over another raggedy old slicker suit. On top of that, he wears a white T-shirt with grass and motor oil staining the back and belly.
And this way: telling the world he is 41 years old and still tough enough to take on every last alphabet champ in the heavyweight division, if he had to, but only if he had to, and, "You can hit me pretty good and I don't feel it . . . But God gives some people a little bit more, like he done me."
Now he is telling a kid jumping rope, "I don't like the way you look, Chan. You look lazy. I don't like that."
And the kid says, "I gotta cramp."
"You gotta cramp?"
"I gotta cramp, Joe."
"Lemme see. I'll get rid of it."
"It's from eating."
"Lemme get rid of it."
"I ate three mashed potatoes and two roast beefs. It ain't a muscle cramp."
"You still look lazy," Frazier says. "And I don't like that look."
Frazier watches his son climb the carpeted stairs to the office and the little back dressing room where you go before workouts to catch a catnap and look at the monster picture on the wall. The room is as dark and cluttered as a bad dream and the picture shows a beautiful, dark-haired woman lying on her side, with her back to the viewer. The woman, like the million and one pencil drawings of girls picking wildflowers on the wallpaper, is naked.
When Joe enters the room, he tells Marvis to remove his clothes and take a shower, then he swigs some water from an old plastic milk jug. Marvis takes off his clothes, puts on a white bathrobe and grabs something cold from the refrigerator. An ice cube to suck on.
Joe Frazier points to his son and says, "This kid'll hurt you. I tell all my boys, you come through the gym door, it's just a point in time. You walk in and sign the book saying you come to work, you put your name on a death book. You come up here and then downstairs, it's time to be embalmed. You get in the ring and you're a dead man. That's how I feel about it."
Then Joe Frazier says it is true what you've been hearing and reading about him wanting to fight again. You'd better take it seriously. A promoter has been trying to put together an exhibition in Canada, against a young heavyweight named Robert something. Frazier says he can't pronounce the kid's last name, "but it don't matter none who he is or where he comes from." He says he's in pretty good shape by way of daily workouts with the boys in the gym. "I never got out of boxing," he says. "You ever heard of me calling a press conference to say I was retiring? Nah. I'm still in it."
If the fight happens, he says, most of the money will go to research to combat sickle cell anemia. And all he hopes to get from the deal is "a few dollars boogeying money. I still like to party."
Frazier's first sabbatical from the ring came in 1976, after George Foreman knocked him out with horrifying decisiveness. When reminded that he returned to the ring five years later, in 1981, and barely escaped with a draw against an undisciplined heavyweight crudity named Jumbo Cummings, Frazier says, "People always say, 'Why, Joe? Why you want to fight?' All I want is for you to send me one of those guys who writes that and put him to the test. Put him in the ring with me and see what he can do."
Why can't you just live through Marvis here, Frazier's visitor wants to know? Why can't you get satisfaction watching your son fight?
"Me live through this boy?" Frazier protests, "How'm I gonna do that? How'm I gonna do that? You mean let Marvis here keep me alive?"
You can live vicariously, the man says. Go in the ring with Marvis, but only in spirit. Fathers who love their sons find a way to live through them. They know when it's time to turn over the reins and let someone else guide the buggy.
"I know what you're talking about," Marvis says, shaking his head and keeping his eyes on the ground. "But that ain't Pop."
Frazier seems confused. He takes another shot of water from the milk jug and gargles with his head tilted way back. "Nah, mahn," he says. "My life's been exciting since Mother and Daddy give birth to me . . . I mean Mama give birth to me."
Marvis says, "Next to the Lord, your father should be the one you look up to most. He's my father. I respect him to do the right thing."
The visitor starts to ask something but Joe cuts him off. "The Bible," he says, "said two or three things. It said honor your mother and your father and the days upon the land belong to you. Now my daddy was no champion. But he was a champion whatever he do. I lived around him a hundred years and never heard him say I'm tired."
"All you say," Marvis tells his father, "is keep on keeping on." And he laughs that soft, sweet laugh of his, full of innocence and fun and good times. Joe is looking at his son as if seeing him for the first time. Once, not long ago, the old fighter said black-and-white pictures confused him because he couldn't tell who was Joe and who was Marvis. At 22, he said, they could have passed for twins. "If it's not a clear shot I wouldn't know who it is," he said, "me or him. Joe or Joe's boy."
Now Joe Frazier is saying in a voice that begs sleep, "It's there, you know, the genes in the blood. I'm not being a chauvinist, but you see Rinny Tin Tin's mother had a lot of puppies out in the yard and you pick out just one puppy. Why is it Rinny Tin Tin? You know what I mean. It makes a difference, see. From that day on you can pick up Fido but it was Rinny Tin Tin that was chosen first. There must have been something you seen different in that animal. That's how it is with Marvis. That's how it was with me."
Back in November 1983, Joe Frazier thought his son was ready to fight for the heavyweight championship. Three seconds before the end of the first round, Larry Holmes, the champ who outweighed Marvis by almost 20 pounds, mercifully waved in the referee to stop the fight. He pushed Frazier against a turnbuckle and held him at bay with a stinging left jab, then let his big right thunder home. It was an ugly affair, and shortly before it ended, the champion sent Frazier's mouthpiece flying out of the ring. It landed at Joe Frazier's feet. "I don't want to do this any more," Holmes said afterward.
Marvis Frazier says he wants another shot at Holmes. "I've been praying that the Lord will work something out for me," he says. "I'd love the chance to redeem myself against the champion. I don't know, that's water under the bridge. But still . . . "
"Larry Holmes talks out the side of his mouth," Joe Frazier says, correcting his son. "And I don't like it. A champion should be able to take on everybody and crucify everybody, like I done. You know, stretch 'em out . . . I hate the way he stands around and says, 'Come over here and stop it before I kill him.' I say go on and kill him if you can kill him. That's okay. A man's got a job to do. Let him do it."
How can you stand to let your son fight? -- the visitor asks with some trepidation. Aren't you afraid for him in the ring? How can you let him do it, after all you've been through, knowing how it feels to take a punch?
"Close that door," Joe Frazier says to no one in particular, his voice slurred, "you're lettin' flies in here."
Somehow the question is lost and Marvis says, "Being Joe Frazier's son, you had to go through a lot of pressures. You had to go through the girls beating you up, the boys beating you up, just to see if you could fight. It got so bad, people would come up and say, 'Aren't you Joe Frazier's son?' And I'd say, 'Nah, I ain't Joe Frazier's son.' It had gotten that bad.
"They wanted to take all my lunch money. They beat up my friends. Then they beat me up. I had this white German shepherd, I'd let him go all over the block because of who my father was. I remember a guy named Oscar. Everybody growing up has to deal with a bully, and mine was this kid named Oscar. I came home and told Pop about it, I remember that. But it was a long time ago and it went on and on, back and forth."
You get after Oscar? the man asks Joe Frazier. You give him that big left hook?
Frazier is thinking of something else, still staring at his son as if seeing him for the first time. "We had a dog named Prince was his name," he says.
"Before I ever got ready to fight," Marvis Frazier says, "Pop gave me a big lecture on sacrifice, about how many times you have to get up early in the morning, about all the time you have to be in the gym, about how your grades in school have to be together. He wanted me to know that boxing was nothing to play with. He wanted me to take it very, very seriously and for me to know that my life is on the line every time you step in the four squares."
Marvis is 24, the oldest of six children. There are four girls who, Joe says, "gave me more hard times than the boys." When Marvis turned 16, his father gave him a Cadillac Seville. Still, the young fighter says, "Whatever we got, we had to work for it. Whatever Pop got, he had to work for it. Nothing was ever given to us on a silver tray."
"Platter," Joe Frazier says and reaches for the milk jug. Then, "I said you can go take your shower now," and yawns as his son leaves the room.
"I'm tired," the old fighter says. "Mahn, I'm real tired."