After 67 years of fighting every obstacle in his way -- poverty and segregation in childhood and Muhammad Ali in the three most famous fights of their careers -- world-champion Joe Frazier died of liver cancer Monday in Philadelphia.
"Often knocked down, never ever out," said Beaufortonian Matt McAlhaney, who first met "Smokin' Joe" Frazier 15 years ago. "He always answered the bell."
Although Philadelphia was his adopted home and the city where he rose to fame, heavyweight world champion Frazier was born Jan. 12, 1944, in Beaufort County and lived on 10 acres of family property in Laurel Bay. He grew up in and around the city of Beaufort.
He never forgot his roots, old friends said Tuesday.
When in town, Frazier would stop by Singleton's Barbershop on Charles Street, sometimes for a haircut and sometimes just to shoot the breeze, owner Ken Singleton said. He made time not just to take pictures with children in the shop and sign autographs, but also for humbler tasks.
"My son was a little boy, and he told him to keep his shoes tied," Singleton said. "It was very busy on a Saturday, and he got down on his knees and tied his shoe and told him to always keep his shoes tied."
But in a fight, the kid known as "Billy Boy" was "a bad dude," Singleton said Tuesday morning, smiling as he recalled their hardscrabble youth and Frazier's fights with Marines and in Beaufort juke joints. As teenagers, the two played each other in intramural basketball, but Singleton knew better than to challenge Frazier in the ring.
Frazier honed his wide shoulders working the family's farmland and stacking crates at a local Coca-Cola factory. He tempered his fists with countless hours working over a homemade punching bag stuffed with rags, corncobs, Spanish moss, weighted with a brick and hung by a rope, Singleton said. That's how Frazier crafted his signature left hook that floored Ali in 1971 during the first of their three epic fights.
"I think if he hadn't gone through what he went through, he wouldn't have had that left hook," Singleton said. "Hardship, hard work, sacrifice and dedication made Joe Frazier what he became. What a man has to go through, the more challenges, it builds a better person, better character and a better athlete."
Frazier was the youngest of Rubin and Dolly Frazier's 11 children. He left ar 16 for Philadelphia, where he trained formally, earned his name, retired from boxing and eventually opened a gym.
That is where Beaufort native Charles Dennis Singleton said he spent some of the best years of his life. His uncle lived in Philadelphia and brought him there to train at the gym after showing promise as an amateur boxer while living in Atlanta.
"If he hadn't gotten me to Philadelphia, I probably would have continued to box in Georgia, but I don't know if I would have had the experiences I had because Joe Frazier's gym had so much talent," said Charles Singleton, who won three amateur Golden Glove titles in Georgia and Pennsylvania, a national Golden Gloves title and fought 18 professional fights.
Charles Singleton arrived in Philadelphia in 1975, just before Frazier left for the "Thrilla in Manila" fight, in which he and Ali battled to complete exhaustion. Charles Singleton sparred with Frazier in the ring over the years, but the lasting lesson the younger boxer received had little to do with the sport.
"One thing I picked up was to just have a humble spirit. Joe was never boastful," he said.
Frazier was an Olympic champion and captured the professional heavyweight title in February 1970, out-pointing WBA champion Jimmy Ellis at Madison Square Garden. After one title defense, he met Ali in 1971 in the "Fight of the Century," the first meeting between two undefeated heavyweight champions. Frazier won a 15-round, unanimous decision. He made two more defenses before losing the title to George Foreman.
Frazier was the toast of Beaufort and was feted on return trips to his hometown. Beaufort resident John Trask III first met him in 1973 at the Sea Island Motel during one of those visits. Trask was just a youngster.
"He shook my dad's hand and he turned to me and said, 'I'm not going to shake your hand as hard as I shook your daddy's 'cause I might break it,' " Trask said.
Years later, Trask was promoting boxing in the region and sought help from Frazier. The two stayed in touch, and in 2010 Trask and McAlhaney organized a celebration when Gov. Mark Sanford awarded Frazier the Order of the Palmetto, the state's highest civilian honor.
"He had the biggest heart, the kindest demeanor, but he had this inward drive and this sense of purpose that you could just feel," Trask said. "When he stepped outside of his kind persona, there was another side. You could just see how when he got in that ring, hell, he turned it on. He didn't let go."
Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufort.
- Joe Frazier's Wikipedia entry
- Smokin' Joe Frazier's fighting spirit was born on Beaufort soil, Dec. 24, 2009
- City's self-examination provides historical insight, Dec. 11, 2010
- 'Smokin' Joe' documentary to be screened at Beaufort Three-Century event, Dec. 4, 2010
- 'Overdue' recognition part of remarkable story, Oct. 6, 2010
- Beaufort legend Joe Frazier honored with Order of the Palmetto, Sept. 28, 2010
- Ex-heavyweight, Beaufort native Joe Frazier to receive Order of Palmetto, Sept. 26, 2010