THE LEFT hook that will be forever immortalized with the unveiling, at long last, of the Joe Frazier statue tomorrow afternoon in front of Xfinity Live! likely is not the hardest of the signature punches landed by the late, great "Smokin' " Joe. In retrospect, that distinction might go to the wicked hook that put another future Hall of Famer, Bob Foster, down and utterly out in the second round of Frazier's successful defense of his WBC and WBA heavyweight championships on Nov. 18, 1970.
But historic moments require historic situations, and for Frazier, the right time, place and opponent intersected late in the 15th round of "The Fight of the Century," his epic showdown with Muhammad Ali on March 8, 1971, in Madison Square Garden. With Ali too far behind to have any hope of winning on points, he came out with the idea of going for broke scoring a knockout. What Ali got was still another Frazier hook that landed flush on the jaw, sending him crashing to the canvas as if he had been poleaxed.
Remarkably, Ali beat the count and made it to the bell ending the first of what would become his three classic showdowns with Frazier. But he knew he had been beaten, and so did Frazier, who, before returning to his own corner, turned to Ali and said, "I kicked your ass." The scorecards - Frazier winning, by rounds, by margins of 11-4, 9-6 and 8-6-1 - made it official soon afterward.
"Joe's feet were probably 3 inches off the ground when he connected with that hook," Joe Hand Sr. recalled in March 2011, a few days before the 40th anniversary of what has become the cornerstone of the Joe Frazier legacy. Hand was one of the original investors in Cloverlay, the consortium of Philadelphia businessmen who financially backed Frazier's professional career upon his return from winning the heavyweight gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
"I have a picture of it in my office," Hand said. "It wasn't as if his feet were planted or anything like that; it was a leaping punch. Joe hurled himself at Ali and down he went."
In a city that is awash in bronzed statuary honoring its sports heroes, the delayed arrival of a proper testimonial to Frazier has been a matter of consternation among his many admirers.
Smokin' Joe, the 13th and last of Rubin and Dolly Frazier's children, was born and raised in Beaufort, S.C., but he came to Philadelphia when he was 15 and it was here that he heard destiny's call. He would use his fists to fight his way from the slaughterhouse where he worked in anonymity to international renown, and a place alongside Ali in what is widely considered the most classic rivalry in the annals of boxing.
Although there had been talk of creating a Frazier statue for years, the idea began to take firmer root on what would have been his 68th birthday, on Jan. 12, 2012 when Hand informed one of Joe's 11 children, Municipal Court Judge Jacquelyn Frazier-Lyde, and her husband, Peter Lyde, of his intent to fund the $200,000 project. Other major contributors include former middleweight and light heavyweight champ Bernard Hopkins; Jerry Perenchio, who promoted Ali-Frazier I, and the Cordish family, which constructed Xfinity Live!
There were snags in the process from concept to reality, not the least of which involved the approval of licenses from various City of Philadelphia agencies, including the Arts Commission. Another was the tragic death, of natural causes at 48, of sculptor Lawrence J. Nowlan Jr., on July 30, 2013, less than a month after he had begun work on the project.
It had been Nowlan's vision for the statue to depict the most famous Frazier left hook of them all, and the task of carrying on fell to his replacement, Stephen Layne, who had his own ideas of how "The Punch" should be captured for posterity.
"I grew up on the streets and I wanted to capture the vibe of the city," said Layne, 48, a graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. "It made me think of all the people who make pilgrimages to the Rocky statue. That's a depiction of a boxer in his glory, his hands upraised in victory. I thought it was better with Joe Frazier to have him right in the heat of the battle, right in the moment.
"There is an instant of achievement in that pose, in what he just accomplished. He's into the work of what he's doing. I was always astonished, watching that fight over again, to see him land that punch and just walk away. He doesn't make a big deal of it. The best way I can put it is he had this sort of blue-collar mentality. 'I did my job today.' I found that very interesting."
Weatta Frazier Collins, one of Joe's 11 children, served as the intermediary between the Frazier family and Layne. She said "tears were coming down my eyes" when she saw the finished, 12-foot statue, which she called "beautiful" and "perfect."
Ali, who won the other two classic matchups with an opponent he came to respect like no other, attended the memorial service for Frazier. Although health concerns will prevent Ali, 73, from traveling again to Philadelphia for the statue unveiling, the highlight of Joe Frazier Day, he conveyed his appreciation that a fitting tribute would soon be in place for the ultimate Philly fighter.