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Joe Frazier and the forgotten memories of boxing in Philadelphia

Joe Frazier
Presse Sports/USA Today Sports
Philadelphia, once a proud fight town full of life, has changed dramatically this century. There are some clues to what came before but not nearly enough, writes a sombre Tris Dixon

IF I close my eyes and drift back in time, I see things in black and white and I can hear certain sounds.

I can hear the rusting chains of heavybags swinging, the collision of leather on leather as gloves meet bags, I hear trainers barking instructions with violent intent – aggressive commands to do harm, to go to war – and I can see every detail, including beads of sweat tumbling off a fighters’ brow as he sits on a wooden bench and stares at the floor in front of him, unwrapping his throbbing hands.

You step outside, it’s still all black and white, and you can hear the rat-a-tat-tat of leather shoes on the sidewalk, a few diesel hungry cars shoot by and men wearing suits, hats and long overcoats, some holding furled up newspapers under their arms with the day’s betting odds marked in ink, look for money, recognition and opportunity. Some smoke cigarettes, a few puff on cigars.

They are blended between the cagey and the powerful. You wouldn’t trust either.

There are boxing gyms everywhere. Okay, perhaps not on every street corner but in every neighbourhood.

There’s Joe Frazier’s Gym, there’s Juniper, there’s Champs, Augie’s, Joe Hand’s, there are rec centres heaving with talent and big names and potential. Passion leaks from the sweating walls but the Philly guys don’t fight for a way out, they fight to be the King of the City.

That was middleweight ‘Bad’ Bennie Briscoe’s role. He’d been in the gym wars, the big fights, the brawls and he’d settled differences. He was a boxing enforcer who commanded respect. Even when Smokin’ Joe flew at his highest, Bennie was The Man in Philly. And not because he wanted a way out, but because he wanted to hang on the street corners with his old friends, chest pumped out and be known as the guy. King of Philadelphia, king of the streets. Same thing.

***

When I first started going to Philadelphia back in 2000 it wasn’t like that but if you looked hard enough and closed your eyes you could feel it. The hairs could still shoot up on the back of your neck. You knew Bennie lived in town, even though he was a recluse, Frazier lived above the gym and his son, Marvis, ran the show downstairs.

The guys who had fought in those black and white days were still around. Harold Johnson, the genius light-heavyweight, was in an old people’s home wrapped in a cocoon of dementia. Middleweight Boogaloo Watts and Cyclone Hart toiled in gyms trying to build the next big thing from the ground up, Willie Monroe moved to the suburbs, Kitten Hayward was holding down a long-term job in the city’s court building as a clerk, brilliant bantamweight Jeff Chandler was in Germantown and even some of the older relics weren’t too far away. 1950s and ‘60s middleweight Joey Giardello had retired to Cherry Hill, George Benton was revered everywhere he went. The gyms were packed with boxing people.

One day I went into Augie Scimeca’s gym in around 2004. I knew the City well by then. You went up a creaking narrow staircase with rare and valuable Philadelphia fight posters on either side. At the top of the stairs, you could go left to Augie’s office, covered in memorabilia from decades of fights, blacks and whites, yellows splashed with red fonts, names like the Arena and the Spectrum and the Blue Horizon flashed back at you. The Blue was still being used, mostly for small local club shows. It wasn’t the same but it was still the Legendary Blue. At least it was still going.

I visited Philly dozens of times between 2000 and 2010. Over the years I met former heavyweight contender Tyrell Biggs at a rec centre where he was helping youths and I used to go to places nearby, Camden and Trenton. One time in Trenton I went to see former 1968 Olympian Sammy Goss, he was a teammate of George Foreman, the year of the Black Panther salute. Sammy had opened Goss and Goss Boxing Club even though he was about 70 then. His brother, Barry, died a few years on, but not before they’d given long-time prisoner James Scott a small coaching role. James was a former light-heavyweight contender who took some notable boxing scalps while serving time in Rahway Penitentiary. But following his 30-something year sentence and having thrived for briefly with the Goss’s (“He’s great with the kids”), Sammy told me his body and mind began to close down. Within a year or two he died. He passed away in New Jersey in 2018, aged 70.

joe frazier

Still, even if boxing wasn’t everywhere, you could find it everywhere if you knew the right people and if you looked hard enough. Frazier’s, the Blue, the fighters. Close your eyes, go back to those black and white days, you can hear the punch bags, you can see the gangsters, you can feel boxing.

***

On the way in to Philadelphia in 2019 things felt different. Smokin’ Joe had died. Chandler had moved to Delaware, where another of the city’s boxing icons, Bernard Hopkins, lived. Briscoe had died. Harold was gone, too. Joe Frazier’s Gym closed and became a bedding and furniture store and Marvis, a Philly mainstay, moved away. Frazier’s gym still has its wonderfully sculpted name in stone above the doorway, but luminous signs of discount mattress sales are hard to look beyond and they cover the doorway where I stood and spoke with Joe and his old friend Matthew Saad Muhammad, one of the city’s great 175-pounders, back in around 2002.

That day, Saad and I went and spent the afternoon with Benton, the wonderful middleweight turned trainer who died in 2011. He had been known as ‘The Mayor of Philadelphia’ because he was so well respected. Now even the Blue Horizon is closed, left decaying like a hopeless alcoholic in need of urgent treatment to bring it back to life.

Just a mural high overhead on the side featuring Frazier, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Larry Holmes, can remind you of what it was and not what a dilapidated sight for sore eyes it has become. The paint was chipped, the windows boarded up, handrails had rusted, trash blew listlessly up and down the front of the old place.

A lot of the gyms had followed suit. Augie died, as did his gym. Joe Hand’s – forced out by inflated rates – was waiting on funds to be raised so they could open in a new location and even the rec centres don’t entice the old guys as much.

I went to Shepherd’s where I was told I may reunite with Tyrell Biggs. They hadn’t seen him in years, even though they had pictures of him up in the office. I went to the Martin Luther King Center where Cyclone Hart had spent time. Cyclone was still around, but not here. Not often. I asked about Boogaloo Watts. The guys said ‘Old-timers’. Well, that’s what it sounded like. Alzheimer’s.

If you close your eyes now it’s harder to see those grainy black and white images. The sounds are dulled with traffic and cell phones. Fighting is being flushed out of a fighting city.

Now there are beacons, reminders, distress flairs for history to be remembered. Cyclone’s son Jesse is still fighting and still around. He will keep the family name alive if not the city’s as a flagship fighter. Joe Frazier finally got his statue, which can be found by the homes of the Philly sports teams for basketball, baseball and football that are all within a stone’s throw of one another.

But most of the old guard has gone.

When I interviewed Kitten Hayward in the courts in 2004, he gave me his address and asked me to send him any story I wrote. I decided to door knock him, some 15 years on. Slight problem. I’d misheard him back then and the street name he’d given me didn’t exist. Google Maps provided me with one that sounded similar and with time to kill, why not? I went.

I drove through deepest darkest Philly. Abandoned buildings, liquor stores, pawn shops, guys drinking on street corners regardless of it being 9am or 9pm. It was the type of place where you double check that your car doors are locked; not exactly Iraq, but not the New Forest either.

As I approached the door an elderly man walked behind me and asked what I was doing. It was 80-year-old Kitten. He’d aged a lot since we last met but invited me in and we talked about the old days for an hour or more. His memory had faded, he admitted that, but he sprang to life when you mentioned certain names. Gil Turner, Sonny Liston, Benton and a few more. Hayward was a unique story. He’d done well fighting, facing the likes of Briscoe, Cyclone, Emile Griffith and Curtis Cokes and after that he had his job in the city for 30 years. He’d done well during and after boxing.

Hayward had gone from a young 65 to an old 80 in the time that had passed between our visits but nothing was the same anymore.

Perhaps the brightest beacon of Philly’s boxing past is the Peltz Boxing Office. That survived a 1990s firebombing, likely from a rival with mob ties, but it still houses promoter Russell Peltz, who recently celebrated 50 years in promoting the sport with his anniversary show, Blood, Sweat and 50 Years.

His office is a priceless museum. Posters, HVS tapes, DVDs, a library, cinema room, bar, every issue of The Ring (from 1922) and Sports Illustrated in binders. It’s great. And of course, while you may have to close your eyes to imagine what it was like, Russell just needs to think back. He was there, staring out on an incredible journey that saw Philadelphia boxing thrive as he thrived. The firebombing caused some irreparable damage. He lost some things he could never get back but at least he had his memories. He gave me the tour. Nigel Collins, former Ring editor came to see us both and goes back decades with Peltz. “He’s showing you the inner sanctum, he doesn’t let anyone up here,” Nigel said, of the things I was privileged to see.

I suppose the only thing that hasn’t changed is the fictional stuff.

Tourists pound the Rocky steps in front of the Art Museum on loop. The Rocky statue is now at the foot of the steps, too. It was tucked away in front of the Spectrum for years but was a case of out of sight out of mind. Now you need to queue if you want your picture taken with it.

You can go to websites that have the addresses of areas where the films’ most famous scenes were shot. I’d never done that but with the non-fiction options so hugely reduced I went to Mickey’s Gym; I went to Rocky’s apartment. Both were destitute and indicated poverty in the film. Now they’re worse.

Rocky Balboa
The Rocky film is the most famous fictional depiction of boxing in Philadelphia

When I pulled up outside Balboa’s house, a black tour car passed by with a white glove emblazoned on the side. It was a Rocky City Tour.

***

Trips to Philly aren’t the same anymore. I was fortunate enough to go in some of the old gyms, to meet some of the great champions, to see some of those infamous sparring wars, to watch fights at the Blue, to see the Frazier’s barking instructions in their gym and impart their wisdom.

It meant that if I close my eyes and breathed in deeply I could hear the trainers coaching their fighters through spars, I could listen to the speedbag finding its rhythm and singing at the top of its voice, I could see the beads of sweat, the stampedes to get the best seats in the Blue. If I hadn’t seen that and visited Philadelphia now, I don’t know what I would see or how I would feel but it’s changed and, as a fight fan, not for the better. I guess you could say that about everything. When you hit a certain age you’re overrun by nostalgia and sense gives way to sentiment but I remember those times. Hell, even though I wasn’t around in the 1960s and cutting about with the likes of Blinky Palermo and Frankie Carbo and interviewing the likes of Frazier, Briscoe and Cyclone I can imagine doing it. If I close my eyes and listen to my boxing heart I can feel it. I can feel their presence. There’s nowhere else like it in the world. Philadelphia is still a fight town, even if you have to close your eyes to feel it.

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  • I thoroughly enjoyed Tris Dixon’s nostalgic article about Philadelphia boxing. True, things are not the same as they used to be, but allow me to give the positive side of the story. There are still regular small-hall promotions at venues such as the 2300 Arena, Sugar House Casino and Parx Casino (about 16 miles outside of Philly.) Even the beautifully restored Met has hosted several cards. There has also been a number of major shows at the Liacouras Center that have been televised nationally. Moreover, let’s not forget Philly’s two current titleholders: Julian Williams (WBA super welter) and Tevin Farmer (IBF super featherweight). I too miss the old days that Tris writes about, but we can’t turn back the calendar. I often quote the old joke: Boxing has been buried so many times, they’ve run out of shovels. The pulse is weak compared to the wonderful time Tris recalls, but boxing is still alive in Philadelphia.

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