Has Joe Lost His Smoke?

Boxer Joe Frazier sitting on a chair under a spotlight. John Shearer / Getty Images

Joe Frazier squeezed into a booth at his Philadelphlia rib restaurant one night last week and propped his once-fabled left on the table. "C'mon," he said to his nephew Rodney, an amateur heavyweight who is undefeated in three bouts. It was an invitation to arm-wrestle.

"How old are you.?" the former heavyweight champion demanded as both men's forearms began to quiver under the strain. "Twenty-three!" grunted Rodney. "How old are you?" The elder Frazier's gasping reply--just before the table quaked and the hand that had once decked Muhammad Ali got pinned to the Formica--was "Thirty-seven. "

And so we have a little more evidence arguing against Smokin' Joe's proposed return to the ring. Not that it matters; while recent sparring sessions indicate that he remains, as ever, an easy target for a punch, Frazier has become a master at slipping a portent, rolling with hard reality. "That's TV's loss!" he declares when asked about the lack of interest on the part of any network or cable service in his Dec. 3 encounter with Jumbo Cummings, an all-too-credible hulk who once bit an opponent on national television. "This way I'll get to prove that those college-educated folks don't know the slightest about what goes on in the four-square 'tween the ropes."

Comparison: In his ability to ignore the utter lack of demand for his services, Frazier has only one superior: the 39-year-old Ali, who on Dec. 11 will be making yet another comeback of his own--this time against journeyman Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas. But Frazier bridles at any comparison with the man who beat him in two of their three encounters. "We're very different at this stage," Frazier maintains. "I never abused my body the way he did."

Frazier, who retired at the urging of his wife, Florence, in 1976, says that he has lost nothing physically during the off years. This is one claim he can support by simply stepping on a scale. After seven weeks of hard training in a rubber shirt, the 5-foot 11-inch Frazier dropped from 235 pounds to 232, still about 25 pounds more than he weighed in his fighting prime. While insisting that he is entering a "body cycle" that will result in the sudden streamlining of his torso, Frazier is coping with his apparently middle-aged metabolism mostly by steering the conversation in other directions. "What matters most is the boxing wisdom I've gained," he proclaims. "That makes me a much better athlete than I was sixteen or seventeen years ago."

Eddie Futch begs to differ. The eloquent corner man who managed Frazier during his last five bouts says that he spotted the beginning of a power failure as long ago as 1973. "I had Ken Norton then," Futch recalls, "and I brought him in to spar with Joe. When they were finished, Ken came over and we both said, almost simultaneously, 'This man has lost his drive'." A few weeks later, George Foreman knocked Frazier to the canvas six times during the first two rounds--and took away the title. Once he suffered that initial defeat, the famous "smokin' " style came only in thin wisps. Frazier got past Joe Bugner, Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Ellis, but failed twice against Ali before Foreman returned to pound him into retirement.

Futch is noticeably absent from Frazier's current retinue, as is attorney Bruce Wright, a longtime friend and adviser. "The matter really carne to a head between us when I called him an old man," Wright says. "Joe always got rid of anyone who stood up to him and told it like it is." Wright has been replaced by Sharon Hatch, an unlicensed "legal specialist" who enthusiastically favors the comeback. The manager's role has been assumed by Frazier himself, who says, "I can be my own boss, I'm so much smarter than these heavyweights around today." Notes Futch: "That's what they all say."

Memento: Frazier does tend to revere the past. The first thing he sees when he enters his North Philadelphia office is a nearly lifesize blowup of his knockdown of Ali during their first meeting in 1971--and in the gymnasium below, nearly every inch of wall space holds some faded fight memento. Frazier's taste in cars runs to huge Cadillacs; he owns five, none newer (or smaller) than a 1976 model. Even his clothing is curiously old-fashioned, tending toward iridescent fabrics and including such touches as the heavy gold jewelry and the broad-brimmed fedoras that were fashionable among blacks when he ruled the boxing world.

There is justification for such nostalgia: Frazier's retirement has been marked by failure and ennui. Duane Bobick, the alleged Great White Hope he planned to manage toward millions, was the first disappointment, but the worst was surely his costly venture into pre-disco soul music with his much-maligned group, the Knockouts. On a brighter note, his 21-year-old son, Marvis, 6-0 as a pro, is developing into a legitimate heavyweight prospect--if last year's surgery to relieve a pinched nerve in his neck does not affect his ability to take a punch. At the moment, Frazier pere is selecting his boy's opponents so carefully that Marvis's bouts have all the excitement and suspense of private boxing lessons. There are no echoes of the Thrilla in Manila.

But it is not just a yearning for past glory that has Frazier up and running at 4:30 each morning. Ultimately, he is in this comeback for the money. Despite a guaranteed annual income of $70,000 from pensions and investments, Frazier's high life-style and seven children have left him with what one former confidant describes as "a severe cash-flo w problem." For going ten rounds or less in Chicago with Cummings, a convicted murderer who served twelve years in prison, the ex-champ will earn $80,000. That's more than he makes in a year now--and about what he earned per minute in the good old days.