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  • Celebrity Drive: Boxing Legend Joe Frazier

Celebrity Drive: Boxing Legend Joe Frazier

For Smokin' Joe, Cadillac Symbolizes Success

K.S. Wang
Oct 30, 2009
Quick Stats: Joe Frazier, Legendary World Heavyweight Boxing Champion
Daily Driver: 2007 Cadillac Escalade (Joe's rating: 10 on a scale of 1 to 10)
Other cars: Cadillacs and Fords, see below
Favorite road trip: I-95
Car he learned to drive in: 1944 Ford
First car bought: 1966 Chevy Chevelle SS
The rivalry between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali was arguably the biggest ever in boxing. It felt as if the entire planet watched the two iconic World Heavyweight Boxing Champions duke it out in a trilogy of epic fights during the pinnacle of the sport in the early 1970s.
Photo 2/13   |   Joe Frazier Green Short Pose
Boxing helped Frazier support his lifelong love of American cars. He won the Olympic gold in 1964, and, with the help of his legendary left hook, went pro the next year, earning enough money to buy a new 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle Supersport.
"After I turned pro I was able to buy a car, so I got a Chevy," he tells Motor Trend Online. "I always loved cars. General Motors was always a good company for cars and I just stuck with them from when I was a little boy."
Frazier is on the phone from his manager's Philadelphia office. He's in a jovial mood, even singing a line from an old R&B song as he playfully interjects, "You've got a lot of questions!" While he was never as loquacious as Ali back in the day, today Frazier is chatty about his cars and has some surprising things to say about his old archrival.
Photo 3/13   |   Credit: GeorgeKalinsky.com
At first, it's difficult to understand Frazier, perhaps from all his years of taking blows to the head. But after a few minutes, it gets easier to comprehend his speech as he expounds on why GM is his favorite automaker.
"Anybody could build a car and take the time to put it together right from the beginning," Frazier says. "Once you start building a car or being a champion fighter, you go from the beginning. Everything has to start from the beginning. And they always made good cars."
Although he's known as Smokin' Joe, Frazier might as well be called Cadillac Joe, since that seems to be his badge of choice. Cadillac to him symbolizes success.
Photo 4/13   |   Credit: GeorgeKalinsky.com
In 1968 Frazier bought his first luxury ride, a front-drive Eldorado, a rarity then. In 1970 he bought a Coupe DeVille, which is what he was driving at the time of his first fight with Ali. "I've been driving Cadillac ever since," Frazier says, with a chuckle.
"I bought cars every two years," he laughs. "But as of now, I get a better feeling with the old cars because I know how to fix them. I buy the cars now because I could afford to buy and I love doing it because I don't travel as much as I used to. I usually drive places."
After beating Ali in that first fight, making the unheard-of $2.5 million purse, Frazier didn't go out and buy another new car. "You just can't make money to buy cars; you got other expenses that you have to worry about," he says. "I don't really have to buy a new car all the time to make one run right, because I know how to fix them back in them days."
Car he learned to drive in
His first Madison Square Garden matchup with Ali was a long way from his native Beaufort, S.C. The son of a sharecropper, Frazier, who worked the fields since he was 7, epitomized the working class. He was born and raised in this racially segregated, poverty-stricken farming region. But this is where destiny would find a future boxing legend.
Frazier discovered boxing by chance when he went to the gym just to get in shape. At the same time, he began developing his interest in cars. "Daddy had Fords and Chevys. He had a couple Packards too," he laughs. One day, when Frazier was 8, his dad let him sit on his lap to steer the car. He was hooked.
Photo 5/13   |   04 Joe Frazier With Cars
"Dad was partying and he had a couple drinks. I steered the car home and he shifted the gears and pumped the gas. I'd love to dance with my father again. You know that song? He was great dad," Frazier says wistfully.
Frazier's dad later taught him how to drive in a 1944 Ford at the precocious age of 12. "I've been driving Fords since I was a little boy. My daddy had one of those Fords and he called them Billy Boy," Frazier says. "That was a 1951 Ford and they were sharp."
Frazier pauses. "Do you know something? People really don't realize, they didn't make no V-8 back in them days, you know that? The first car that came out with a V-8 was a 1955 Chevy. It's been so long now," he laughs, trying to recall. "But it was beautiful. The bodies they made, they were really class cars. They were beautiful cars."
Driving was a necessity and Frazier drove until he got his license. "I did all the back roads driving," Frazier laughs. "You have to; they're not going to give you no license till you can drive."
His dad bought a used Chevy and gave it to Frazier to fix and drive. "My dad was more a guy that gets scrap irons and junk and he sells it to the mill. So we had three or four cars in the yard and none of them would run," he laughs. "We took this off of that and make it work."
By 16 boxing had become his life's calling and Frazier moved to New York to live with his brother Tommy. It was the polar opposite of Beaufort for Frazier, who was armed only with a dream and a heavy dose of chutzpah. This same city would help seal his fate as a legend a decade later when he met Ali in the ring.
"I wanted to be a champion of the world because I wanted mommy and daddy to live good. I didn't like the how they were living. That's why I moved. 'Son, you're too young,' 'Mom, I'm going.'" Frazier recounts the conversation with his mom as if it were yesterday.
"Cadillac Joe Frazier"
Frazier loves Cadillacs and he loves talking about them. "Today I like '70 Cadillacs," he says. "They're one of the biggest engines they made -- 472 Cubes with 385 horses. You had to order positive traction, both wheels spin but not both of them turn," he says. "If you don't want a positive traction, you only get only one wheel pull on the car and that's the right rear. Back in them days, you had to order positive traction. That's extra money."
Frazier always worked on his cars, even at the height of his career. "Now it's a little difficult for me to work on the cars. But every chance I get, if I have to change the hub caps, tires, the water pump or fan belt, I can handle it. You have to be a mechanic to work on cars today. I don't think I'm that sharp," he laughs. "I just put a tire on and take it off. Maybe a radiator, yes. But anything beyond that, like the positive traction and let's say, fuel injection, nooo, I can't handle that!"
Today's cars are just too high-tech for the amateur mechanic. "It looks like an airplane -- what's this for? What's that for?" he laughs. "I'm afraid to touch any button because the top might open and it might eject me out. It takes you a year to tighten all the bolts down that they made. You got to have a factory line - whoop! whoop! (makes an impact wrench sound)"
Photo 6/13   |   06 Joe Frazier With Cadillac Escalade And Deville 2 Promo
Eager to help, Frazier will often ask his manager Les Wolff, "Let me hear your engine," if Wolff's 1992 Taurus is acting up. "I buy disposable cars, I lived in New York for 20 years, never needed a car and I've had a habit of buying old cars," Wolff says. "If I tell him something is wrong with the car, he wants to come over and fix it. He showed up one day with a box of tools because he heard my car wasn't working. The neighbors are going, 'Is that Joe Frazier under the hood of your car?' It's amazing what he can tell by the sound."
Wolff points out in anticipation for this column, Frazier, his companion of 40 years Denise Menz, who was featured in the documentary "Thrilla in Manila" and is also a car enthusiast, started reminiscing about their early car experiences in his office. "I was talking about the old Nash that I learned to drive on," Wolff laughs. "You had us really talking."
Photo 7/13   |   07 Joe Frazier With Cadillac Escalade And Deville 2
Frazier had a car accident several years ago in a Chrysler. "That's the reason why I'm walking bent over," Frazier explains. "All through the years, they've been having trouble with cars, Chrysler. Ha! I could remember daddy used to buy them. Back in them days the plug wire wasn't right, the water pump was bad. If you got a good water pump and a good radiator, a car could run longer because it wouldn't get hot and shut down."
Frazier's car collection
Over the years Frazier made enough money to treat himself to several Cadillacs, which he still owns and cherishes. Some cars are in different states, since he doesn't have the space to house them together.
2007 Cadillac Escalade
Rating: 10
These days Frazier's daily driver is the Escalade, which he says handles well, rating it a perfect 10. "Definitely 10, because I got a good view of the road. It has a clear shot of the road, it runs good and you can see everything in front of you," he says, with a chuckle. "Trucks have a better vision of the road, they sit higher than other cars. You got a clean shot of the entire highway that you can drive a nice, decent speed."
1991 Cadillac DeVille
Rating: 8
"At certain speeds it goes into eight, comes down to six and runs into four," Frazier says, reminiscing about an old 1981 DeVille. "They perform good. I'm a General Motors man."
1989 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham
Rating: 10
"They perform good," says Frazier, adding he also owns a six-door 1991 Cadillac limo. "A car is almost like being in a family, if you don't treat them right, they ain't going to get along right. If you don't raise kids right, you're going to have trouble by the time you get to be an old person. So I treat my cars like my children."
1998 Ford Mustang GT Convertible
Rating: 9
"The Mustang is a powerful Ford. There's nothing on the side of the road once you take off," he laughs. "Today, it's really great to where God gives men the instinct to really makes these cars move."
Frazier is often in the habit of lending cars to family members. "There's only one or two persons driving the car, so you can really take care of a car like that. If a brother, sister, uncle, aunt, cousin drive the car, they don't really take care of it. All they do is drive it and say, 'How much gas you got in here?'" he laughs.
Although it's rained a lot lately, Frazier enjoys driving this convertible with the top down in the dead of winter, as long as the sun is out. "You can take down the top whenever you want to, as long as it's not snowing. It really don't get cold in the car until you stop. The heat's blowing, so you're very warm."
Photo 8/13   |   05 Joe Frazier With Cadillac Escalade And Deville
Fans often recognize Frazier and cause quite a commotion. "People recognize me with the top over my head," he laughs. "I can't hide. It's mostly the car -- if they're old, they're clean, they're going to peek to see who's in the car. So they see it's me."
As he used to duck in the ring against a taller Ali's sting, Frazier has ducked from fans in the Mustang. "It's very great to ride in them when you're going down the highway, everyone wants to look into it," he laughs. "I try to duck, I try to hide."
Being a living boxing legend can be tiring. "I love my fans, but sometimes they can be pretty rough on me," he admits. "Sometimes you happen to be at a certain place and you can't sit there and sign your name all day long."
1999 Ford Crown Victoria
Rating: 10
"It handles perfect, it got speed, it rides good, I got a good view of the road. I lost a sister this year and I drove it 700 miles by myself to go bury my sister," he says about driving from Philadelphia to South Carolina. "It got me there on time safe, with no problem. I drove straight down, 11 hours it took. It performed great. I love it."
Favorite road trip
Frazier enjoys driving north and south on I-95, having driven it to Florida. "Today all the roads are safe. All the roads are big and wide and they have done a great job on the roads for safety on the highway. I'm not going to talk about speed now," he laughs. "Most highways are designed for fast cars."
Frazier and Ali
Frazier will be inextricably linked to Ali throughout history. With all the trash talk between the two, it's hard to believe they only fought three times. They and their fights became bigger than life.
Photo 9/13   |   08 Joe Frazier Thrilla In Manilla Film Still Interview
The riveting documentary "Thrilla in Manila," narrated by Liev Shreiber, that aired on HBO earlier this year, examined that unforgettably poignant time between the legendary rivals that culminated in their last and most grueling fight. It leaves the viewer with a better understanding of Frazier as well as the socio-political climate of that time.
When Ali lost his boxing license for refusing the draft, Frazier took it upon himself to help his then-friend by going to President Richard Nixon to ask him to reinstate it. With Frazier's help, Ali got his license back and the two undefeated champs prepared for their first fight at Madison Square Garden.
With luminaries like Frank Sinatra as the ringside photographer and Burt Lancaster doing color commentary, "The Fight of the Century" lived up to its name, viewed by an astounding 300 million people around the world.
But trash talk turned mean-spirited when Ali called Frazier an "Uncle Tom." Ali always had quick, self-promoting one-liners with what Frazier called "his butterfly lips," while Frazier was quieter, more humble, choosing to focus on the fights themselves. Frazier dominated that fight to become the first person to defeat the self-proclaimed "greatest."
Photo 10/13   |   Credit: GeorgeKalinsky.com
In 1973 Frazier lost his title as undisputed champion to George Foreman. The next year Frazier lost to Ali in their second fight. But later that year Ali beat Foreman to regain the title in the "Rumble in the Jungle."
With one losing the title to Foreman and the other winning it back, the two boxers were primed for their third and final fight, dubbed "Thrilla in Manila." This time, Ali taunted Frazier, calling him "a gorilla."
Photo 11/13   |   09 Joe Frazier Back Shot With Cowboy Hat
In the documentary, it seemed Ali saw Frazier as his fiercest rival, even shooting a gun outside Frazier's hotel room in Manila before their fight.
When I asked if he felt each wouldn't be who they are without the other, Frazier sounded like he did in his fighting days.
"I will be me and I would've been me if Muhammad wasn't around," Frazier says. "I don't think he would've been around if there wasn't me. I went to the president of the United States, remember? And asked him to give him his license and he said, 'Well, Joe, you think you could take him? I said, 'Mr. President, I got him in my back pocket.' I went to the White House, he took me up there and we spoke about it and he said, 'I'll make sure he gets his license.'"
Did Ali ever thank Frazier for his help in getting his boxing license back? "No," Frazier replies. "He was so busy trying to tell me how ugly I was. I was going to dust him off."
To this day Frazier has no regrets that he helped Ali get his license back. "No. No, no, no. He was one of the top dogs around and I know I could beat him, so I went and dusted him off," he says. "Once I helped him, I think the good man above will put a star on my crown. When the time comes, Judgment Day, I think I'll be judged by the good man above, in the right direction."
Great athletes often say tough competition makes them better. I asked Frazier if he felt he and Ali made each other better boxers.
"Nah," he replies again. "I would've been me without him. He had ruined his situation by ducking the draft. I went and got him out of trouble. I would be me whether he was there or not. I was already the champion. I didn't have to go and get him a license. But I felt like I can take him out, so I wanted to help put him back in the star role."
Frazier also has no regrets about how he handled his career, in which he wasn't as good a self-promoter as the savvy Ali. "We all can't be loudmouths, you know what I mean? We all can't be shouting, trying to keep somebody else from saying anything," Frazier says. "We all can't be that way. If we all would be like that, what would this world be like? If everybody was like him, we'd all be in trouble."
"Thrilla in Manila" now on DVD
Frazier fought Ali for the last time on Oct. 1, 1975 in stifling 125-degree heat and humidity in the Philippines. It was their most brutal fight.
In round 14, the fiercest of the 41 rounds between the two, Frazier, who was already partially blind in his left eye from a previous boxing injury, had a right eye that was closing. But for six consecutive rounds, he dominated, delivering major blows to Ali in the liver, kidneys and hips. Ali rallied with some tough combinations. Both were exhausted and badly hurt. Ali said that must've been what dying felt like.
Photo 12/13   |   10 Joe Frazier Ringside
Despite not being able to see, Frazier wanted to continue, but his trainer Eddie Futch made the call to stop the fight, giving Ali the victory. He had seen fighters die in the ring. "It was a great fight and you look at the whole situation, most people say I shouldn't have stopped," he tells me. "But once you have a corner and you all agree upon the same thing, you don't stand in their way."
Frazier now has a rather philosophical perspective, reflecting that he might've come out the bigger winner in life. "You look at the whole situation today, I bet you can't put an interview call to him," he says, with a chuckle. "You can't talk to him, because he can't talk! What do that mean? I'm here. I'm able to talk to everyone. Want me to sing for you?" "Sure," I reply.
He sings a line from the 1956 Ivory Joe Hunter hit "Since I Met You Baby" in almost perfect pitch, "...Since I met you baby, I'm a happy man!"
Photo 13/13   |   11 Joe Frazier Thrilla In Manilla Film Still
With so much at stake for Frazier, I've always wondered how he felt about Futch's decision to end the fight before the final round. At the time they didn't know how badly hurt Ali really was. Did Frazier have any regrets he didn't argue harder with Futch?
"No. I have no regrets on that," he says. "We spoke about the whole thing before that time arrived and he had the right to say, 'Hey, take him off. He ain't going no further.' Eddie Futch had the right to say 'no more fight.'"
Frazier and Ali could have killed each other that day. "No, he couldn't kill me. He couldn't kill me because I quit," Frazier laughs. "He might've died, but I ain't going nowhere. I walked out and he went to the hospital!"
While he never saw the financial rewards that Ali would ultimately reap as a sports icon, he has no regrets about becoming a boxer, despite the abuse Frazier's own body took. "Nah. I love it," he says. "It's been 40-50 years. I wear 228 pounds. Strong. Ready to go."
With wisdom that only comes with age, Frazier feels everything in life has its place and its reason. "Everything went the way it was supposed to. I have no regrets of living, I have no regrets of being with the people I've been with. I have no regrets being with the people I'm with now. And I got the prettiest lady in the world," Frazier says, referring to Menz, his longtime companion.
Before the interview ended, while I spoke to his manager Wolff one last time, I could hear a concerned Frazier in the background asking if I understood everything he said. Then Wolff took another call from a fan, who asked how he could meet Frazier.
Even almost 40 years after that heady time in the ring, Wolff described this as a typical day for Frazier. "A reporter asked Joe, 'What is the number one question you're asked all the time?' Without blinking he said, 'Are you really Joe Frazier?'" Wolff says. "That's the question he's asked all the time. 'You look a lot like Joe Frazier, you know that?'"
"Thrilla in Manila" is available now on DVD. For autographed Frazier memorabilia and other news, visit JoeFrazier.com.

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