The city and state Joe Frazier had to leave behind 50 years ago to chase his dream of becoming a champion boxer welcomed him home Monday.
In a ceremony Gov. Mark Sanford referred to as "the beauty of a eulogy without the dying part," Smokin' Joe was awarded the Order of the Palmetto in front of a large crowd at Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park.
Friends and dignitaries spoke about Frazier's impact on their lives and the lives of others before Sanford gave him the highest civilian honor awarded by the governor.
"I think the governor has made a wise choice in giving Joe Frazier the Order of the Palmetto," former Beaufort mayor Henry Chambers said. "And I congratulate you, champ."
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Frazier was raised on a 10-acre property in Burton, the son of a sharecropper in the segregated South. He left his hometown at 16 to move to Philadelphia, where he pursued his dream of becoming a world-class boxer.
That dream was realized in the form of an Olympic gold medal and three-year stint as the world's heavyweight champion.
Another former heavyweight champ and Frazier's longtime sparring partner, Larry Holmes, called Frazier "one of the greatest fighters of all-time, without question," comparing him favorably to Muhammad Ali, with whom Frazier had three epic fights and a long-standing feud outside the ring.
"He never backed down from anybody," Holmes said. "He would fight anybody who wanted to get in the ring. You put something on the table, Joe was gonna take it off."
Frazier's business manager, Leslie Wolff, listed Frazier along with Ali, Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens and Joe Louis among the five athletes "who have historical, political, social and emotional clout."
"But Joe Frazier is the only one who can walk, talk, sing and dance," Wolff added.
Matt McAlhaney, who helped fellow Beaufortonian John Trask III organize the event, recalled a visit to Frazier's home in Philadelphia during which he noticed a photo of the champ with Nelson Mandela ... and Mandela was wearing the title belt.
"Nelson told me all he ever wanted to be was the heavyweight champion," McAlhaney recalls Frazier saying. "So I gave him my belt."
After his fighting days were done, Frazier focused much of his energy on helping young boxers realize their dreams. One of those fighters was Charles Singleton, who spent nine years training at Frazier's gym in Philadelphia on his way to becoming a national Golden Gloves champion and an accomplished professional boxer.
"I used to tell people if you want to be on Broadway, go to New York. If you want to be in a movie, go to California," Singleton said. "And if you want to learn how to box, go to Joe Frazier's gym."
Even though the circumstances of his early life dictated that gym be located in Philadelphia, Frazier said he still considers Beaufort home and credits his Lowcountry roots with helping him achieve so much success.
"It gives me great pleasure to be a part of Beaufort, South Carolina," Frazier said. "I know a lot of fine people who are here. I see sister-in-law, brother-in-law, nephews, nieces. Right on down the line, they're here to root me on, and that's why I became a champion. I knew that the people in Beaufort were proud of me and they stood behind me."
They gathered around him from all directions Monday, shaking his hand, asking for his autograph and posing for photos.
"It is magnificent when you think about the odyssey, the journey that has been his life," Sanford said. "To be welcomed back in with open arms by folks of all colors and all walks of life says something about the community support down here in Beaufort."