My time with Joe Frazier

Director Mike Todd remembers Smokin' Joe Frazier

It was over five years ago when I first met with Joe and his son Marvis at their iconic gym. I had a fairly simple idea. I wanted to make a film about Joe, his gym and try and look at what the place meant to him and the community it served.

Things rarely turn out as you expect...

Director Mike Todd with Smokin' Joe Frazier, Marvis Frazier and DOP, Quenell Jones

When I arrived, it was clear that this authentic boxing Mecca had seen better days. But like the sport of boxing itself, it had a certain raw honesty. With walls covered in faded pictures of Joe’s legendary career, it was easy to understand how it still existed as a haven for the community of North Philadelphia. A community that suffered from one of the highest gun crime rates in America.

Joe's Iconic Gym in North Philadelphia

Sitting with Marvis in his office, surrounded by mementos of his legendary accomplishments, Joe had the good natured confidence of a man that knew he had lived.

It was clear though that he viewed any new venture with a certain amount of suspicion. I knew from my research that Joe had a strong sense that he’d been wronged more than once throughout his life and career and it would take time to win his trust. But it was also clear that both he and Marvis wanted his story to be told.

Here was a man, probably one of the most famous sports figures of the 20th Century, who had always remained in the shadow of his greatest rival. Although his trilogy of fights with Muhammad Ali made up only a small piece of his life, it defined how he came to be seen and understood.

As a fan of that golden era in boxing, it always seemed to me that, as important as it was to his life, there was more to Joe’s story than his feud with Ali.

Where he came from: the desperately poor Gullah community in segregated South Carolina. What he achieved before fighting Ali: being the first US heavyweight to win an Olympic Gold Medal - and doing so with a broken thumb. The gym and his motivation to keep it open for over forty years.

It was Joe’s story, his experiences as a human being that drove our desire, everyone’s involved, to make the film. What we didn’t realise is that from start to finish the documentary would take us over four years.

Against constant challenges, failed deals with broadcasters and frustrated distribution offers, hampered by archive costs that challenged our capacity to get Joe’s story out, Quenell Jones, the Director of Photography on the project and I, struggled on, surviving on our own commitment and the good will and help of the many people who believed in what we were doing.

And we knew from the interviews we did, with the likes of George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Bernard Hopkins, the late Angelo Dundee, and others, that other people felt Joe’s real legacy still needed affirming.

As filming continued, things began to evolve in unexpected ways: the gym, this symbol of hope, unexpectedly had to close due to financial pressure. A young boxer we’d been following, Isaiah Muneer, rather than triumphing in the Golden Gloves as we’d anticipated, ended up in prison charged with selling crack cocaine. It was a much more tragic series of events than we’d imagined portraying. Nevertheless we felt that what we’d captured was something very real and authentic.

The film was finally ready for preview by Summer 2011. I’d already taken a loan out against our house, to clear the archive for limited screenings. Joe attended an invite only showing in New York, where he received a standing ovation from the 400 people there. He liked the film, saying it was the only one that gave a true sense of “what I’m about and where I’m coming from”.

However, it was shortly after this event that it became clear Joe was very ill. Only, at first, we didn’t quite know how ill he was.

In October, we still expected him to attend the film’s official ‘World Premiere’ in Philadelphia, his adopted home city. When he couldn’t make it, despite having promised to attend, we knew something was very wrong. A week later, his manager told us Joe had liver cancer.

The next week, we had our most important festival screening, at New York’s top documentary festival, Doc NYC. The morning of the screening, it was announced that Joe had passed. News of his death echoed round the world. I walked out of my hotel to see a giant picture of Joe outside Madison Square Garden – RIP Joe Frazier 1944-2011. I cried.

Madison Square Gardens, NYC - the world learns of Joe's passing

The media got hold of our film and I did interviews for CBS, Canadian television, Dutch television... It was all very strange and very difficult. People queued around the block to attend our screening. The New York Times and others came to cover it. It was quite an event and became a place, on that day, to remember Joe.

We never expected when we set out that what we were doing would be so important in trying to preserve Joe’s legacy: who he was and what he stood for. Of the countless people we encountered, all had the highest regard for him, not just as a fighter but as a person. He was a good man and I will always be grateful for the time he spent with us.

Perhaps Joe wasn’t the greatest champion of all time, although he deserves a place among the elite, but what he achieved, coming from almost nothing, and what he gave back to the community, motivated by a knowledge of his own past, is quite remarkable.

There’s a line in our film that perhaps sums up Joe better than anything I could write. Larry Merchant who as a Philadelphia journalist knew Joe from the beginning of his career, told us:

“He got as much out of himself as there was to give – and maybe more. And that’s as much as you can ask of any man - including yourself.”