It took some persistence, the kind the boxer himself needed to become heavyweight champion of the world. But at long last, a mural of Joe Frazier colorfully reigns in Philadelphia, his adopted home.
The 28-by-42-foot work of art at 13th and Allegheny was formally dedicated on Monday. The date marked the 50th anniversary of the “Fight of the Century,” when Frazier defeated Muhammad Ali in a unanimous, 15-round decision in a battle of the two undefeated heavyweights at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
(Also on Monday, a statute of the Fight of the Century featuring Frazier and Ali was unveiled at the Joe Hand Gym in Feasterville, Bucks County.)
The painting depicts a young Frazier in his classic boxer’s pose. Drawn on his massive chest are other images of Frazier himself, along with those of people who were important in his life.
One of Frazier’s favorite sayings — “There is no right way to do wrong and no wrong way to do right” — flows in written in script on the mural’s border.
“It’s a long time coming, but it is very much appreciated, and I think it is beautiful,” said his son, Joe Frazier Jr., 38, who attended the dedication with family, friends, and fans of the boxer.
The elder Frazier, who died on Nov. 7, 2011, was born in Beaufort, S.C., and eventually moved to New York before settling in Philadelphia at the age of 15. From then on, Frazier was a city fixture.
He began training in a Philadelphia Police Athletic League gym, and became a phenom, winning three national Golden Gloves titles. He earned a gold medal in the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and later became heavyweight champion of the world for three years.
The idea for the mural was floated long ago, in 2006, when a Frazier cousin reached out to Mural Arts Philadelphia, the nation’s largest public art program, about the possibility of creating a tribute.
“At first Mural Arts said there was no funding, but thanks be to God, they found some and we’re grateful,” said Weatta Frazier Collins, the boxer’s daughter and CEO of the Legacy Exists Joe Frazier Scholarship Fund. “In God’s time, things get done.”
A location was eventually secured, but then tragedy struck on Nov. 28, 2018, when the artist commissioned for the project, Willis “Nomo” Humphrey, died of a heart attack at the age of 44.
Artist Ernel Martinez, a good friend of Humphrey, was then chosen to create the mural, which took about six months to complete.
“I did the mural in a style I thought would honor him [Humphrey] and also pay tribute to Joe Frazier,” said Martinez, who received his master of fine arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania. “He [Humphrey] was a brilliant artist and painter — and an even better person.”
While Martinez, 45, knew all about the career of Frazier, he relished the conversations he had with Frazier family members, which helped him gain a better understanding of not just Frazier the boxer, but Frazier the man.
“They helped guide the process,” said Martinez, who has more than 100 murals to his name.
Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts, said the project cost about $30,000, which included more than the making of the mural.
“We built different programs around the project,” she said, which included arts-related activities for children — drawing, painting, and mural-making — and donations of school supplies. Mural Arts also facilitated the fencing and cleanup of the lot where the mural newly graces a corner wall.
Thanks to the project, even young fans who weren’t alive when Frazier was boxing can learn about the man referred to as “Smokin’ Joe,” every time they see this mural of a true Philadelphia legend.