IT'S ODD what you remember of someone once they are gone. Even when that person lived a large and varied life, it is the small, highly personal things that come back. In the case of the great heavyweight Joe Frazier, who died of liver cancer in November at age 67, what his son Marvis remembers is that voice, that big, booming baritone that always snapped him to attention whenever he dared to step out of line.
Joe would say: Jump!
Marvis would ask: How high?
"Pop never had to give me a whipping," says Marvis. "It would just be, 'GET OVER HERE! GET OVER HERE NOW!' And then he would ball in his left hand into a fist, hold it up under my nose and say, 'Smell this!' "
Marvis adds with a gravelly chuckle: "We never had any problems communicating."
Biologically, they were father and son. But somehow they seemed to be more than that, in a certain way part of the same operating system. Wherever Joe would go, you did not have to look far to find Marvis. Ask anyone who knew the two of them. Of the 11 children Joe Frazier had, none was as special to him as Marvis, who even followed his legendary dad into the ring during the 1980s. Marvis dreamed that they would one day go down in history as the only father-son combination to ever win the heavyweight championship. It was not to be - Larry Holmes saw to that - yet they remained inseparable until Joe died.
Six weeks into the grieving process, Marvis is sitting at a table with me in Union Station in Washington having lunch. He lives not far from the station with his fiancée, Pamela Banks, who works in the real-estate field. Marvis is a security guard at a department store, where he has found himself chasing down shoplifters. By avocation, he is also a preacher, which has given him some solace as he deals with the pain that has enshrouded him. Joe had once said, "Every man should have a son like Marvis."
Sadly, Marvis smiles, "Every son should have a father like I did," he says. "I could talk to him about anything. He could talk to me about anything. In fact, the only thing he never told me about was his cancer."
Quite often, people approach Marvis Frazier in Washington and say, "Man, I know you . . . You look like somebody." Grinning, Marvis always asks: "Who do I look like?" Eventually, it comes to them: "Frazier! Joe Frazier! Are you his son?" And Marvis says, with more than just a trace of pride in his voice: "Yes, I am."
The world knew Joe Frazier as a boxer, the great heavyweight who will hold an indelible place in history for his three classic bouts with Muhammad Ali (Frazier won the first.) But Marvis knew him in a way that few others did: not just for his exploits in the ring but as "Pop." And when he remembers "Pop," it is how Frazier used to lie on the floor and "play monster" with his children.
"He would act like he was sleeping," says Marvis, who is 51 with a streak of gray in his hair. "My sisters and I would crawl on top of him. We were 7 or 8 years old, I guess. And then he would grab us and growl. He would hold us for a couple of seconds and let us go."
No young boy ever looked upon his father with more adoring eyes. To Marvis, "Pop" was indestructible, despite the son's seeing evidence to the contrary in the George Foreman and second and third Ali bouts. As a teenager, Marvis was exposed to vitriol that Ali poured on his father, how he had portrayed Frazier as a "gorilla" and "ugly" and so on. But Marvis saw the private side of Ali, who, after the "Thrilla in Manila," offered an apology for Marvis to take back to Joe. When Marvis did that, his father would not accept it. Instead, he told Marvis: "He said it to you. I want him to say it to me. You are not me, son. He should say it to me."
Marvis shrugs. "Mr. Ali is a good man . . . gracious, kind," he says. "Even when I was 15 and we were in Manila, I knew he was a good person."
Boxing and the temptations that go with being a celebrity lured "Pop" from home. But while Marvis says "there was never enough time for us," he adds that "it goes with the territory. No one has a squawk. We had the best of everything." On his 16th birthday, Marvis says his father told him, "Go outside." There, Marvis found a Cadillac Seville with a Rolls Royce grill. It gleamed.
Marvis looked at his father and asked, "Who does it belong to?"
"You," Frazier said, "and guess what? If you don't keep it clean, I'm going to take it back."
Marvis remembers with a laugh, "I used to keep it spotless."
To engender closeness with his father, Marvis followed him into the ring. He became quite a fine amateur. With an overall record of 56-2, be became the 1979 National Golden Gloves heavyweight champion and the 1980 National AAU heavyweight champion. When he won the latter, his father gave him the ring that was once awarded to him. Joe told him as he slipped it on his finger, "You are a champion." Marvis slips it off his finger and hands it to me. Embedded in the setting is a star sapphire. Marvis says, "When the sun hits, you can see the star in there."
Joe guided Marvis into the pros. In a way, it was as if he were trying to recreate himself in his effort to transform his son from a boxer into a puncher. Early in his pro career, Sports Illustrated dispatched a photographer to the gym Joe operated on North Broad Street for a piece on father and son. Marvis remembers that the photographer asked them to get into the ring together to spar. Joe was nearing the end of his career, which would end in December 1981, with a sorrowful draw against a flabby Floyd "Jumbo" Cummings in Chicago. In that sparring session in the spring of that year, Marvis remembers that his trainer, Georgie Benton, called out to him: "Your dad has been out of the ring awhile. Take it easy on him."
Marvis laughs. "I hit him with a few jabs," he says. "But then I did the Ali Shuffle and he caught me with that big left hook he had. As I was falling, Pop grabbed me and said, 'Are you all right, son?' I said, 'Lord, Jesus!' That was the last time I ever got into the ring with him."
With only 10 pro bouts behind him, Marvis placed his unblemished record on the line against champion Larry Holmes in November 1983. The 45-0 Holmes devoured Marvis with a TKO at 2:57 of the first round. Marvis won 9 of the next 10 bouts against some also-ran opponents. Significantly, his sole loss came in July 1986, against not-yet-champion Mike Tyson, who obliterated Marvis at 30 seconds of the first round. Overall, it was an undistinguished pro career, one for which Joe came under some sharp criticism. Generally, the feeling was that he pushed Marvis along too quickly, a claim that Marvis disputes. He says it was he who has been "antsy."
"Dad said to me, 'Are you sure you feel good about this, son?' " says Marvis. "And I said, 'Let's go, I'm ready. Larry who? Mike who? I feel like Superman.' Larry and Mike had kryptonite."
Out of boxing by the end of 1988, Marvis focused his attention on his father. Although he had a wife, Daralyn, and two daughters, Tamyra and Tiara, and aspired to be an evangelist, Marvis became a "caretaker" for his father, according to Barbee Williams, former executive secretary for the Fraziers. She says that while she worked for them, between 2004 and 2008, Marvis helped his father with business deals and even saw to it that he "took his medication and had his clothes dry-cleaned."
Up at the North Broad Street gym, Marvis had the front office and Joe had one in back, as well as a hideaway apartment he had upstairs. Says Steve Fleischer, who volunteered at the gym to counsel young boxers to keep them out of trouble: "Joe loved Marvis. And Marvis revered Joe. I have never seen a son with such unquestioned loyalty."
Cardiologist Nick DePace echoes that. "Marvis idolized his dad," said DePace, who treated Joe for 25 years. "To Marvis, he was not just a dad but a figure out of Greek mythology. Joe had that same sense of immortality."
Marvis agrees. "Yep. I thought Pop would live to 110 or 120 years old. Nothing could take him down."
Joe had not been feeling well for a year or so. With his longtime companion, Denise Menz, he visited an array of doctors to get to the bottom of it. Marvis remembers, "Pop would point to where the liver, beneath the sternum, and say: 'I have this feeling here. Like a knot.' But he said, 'Everything is under control.' "
On Oct. 6, Joe was diagnosed with liver cancer, which DePace says was "a galloping kind . . . once you begin experiencing the symptoms, you are too far gone." According to Menz and Les Wolff, who worked with Joe for 7 years as his business manager, Joe was not told he had cancer until the very end. Menz says she decided that after consulting a University of Pennsylvania Hospital psychologist. Wolff says, "Joe knew he had a tumor. But we were looking for a miracle, some experimental treatment that we could go for."
Wolff adds, "Denise and I wanted to keep his hopes high. His brother Tommy had just died of pancreatic cancer."
It would be two weeks before even Marvis or any of his siblings would know. "I tried to spare Marvis as long as I could," says Menz, who adds that Marvis lost his wife in November 2001 to colon cancer at age 37. Upon hearing the news, Marvis came up from Washington. Joe was in pain - deep, terrible pain, according to Denise - but he was still lucid and he and Marvis had a cheerful visit. In fact, Menz says that along with her, only a few other people were allowed in by Joe to see him: Wolff, DePace and Marvis.
Marvis leaned over and kissed him.
Joe squeezed his hand and said, "Come over here."
I asked Marvis if the two of them had any final words. "There were no final words," Marvis says. "Because he never believed he would go. As I left, he said, 'Son, I will be back here tomorrow.' "
Given 3 months to live on Oct. 6, his condition quickly deteriorated. According to Menz, who lived with Joe at their 20th-floor apartment in Center City, he did not respond well to a treatment he had received Oct. 31, a Monday. "By Tuesday, he crashed," says Menz. Aware by now that he indeed had cancer, Joe told Menz, "Call Marvis. He is the only one who will listen to me." Marvis got off work and showed up that Saturday, where he found his father unable to speak. That weekend, Marvis says that DePace told him, " 'It's pretty bad, Marv.' "
Marvis fell to his knees in supplication. "Lord, please don't take Pop," he said. "Let thy will be done, but please don't take Pop."
Optimistically, Marvis told Denise: "Pop is going to be fine. You know how strong he is."
Menz looked at him with tears in her eyes. "Marvis," she said, "putting lotion on him and clipping his toenails and washing him is not going to save him. There is nothing they can do for him, Baby."
Marvis simply replied, "You have to have faith, Denise."
In the bedroom where Joe clung to life, Menz announced, "Joe, Marvis is here. Do you want him to come in?" Joe squeezed her hand. Marvis remembers that Joe tried to sit up when he walked in the room but that Marvis told him, "Relax, Pop. Take a chill pill." Marvis visited him again on the morning of Nov. 7, a Monday, then boarded his train back to Washington. Denise called him later that evening to tell him his father had died.
"What?" Marvis replied. "What are you talking about? I was just there?"
Marvis looks across the table at me and says, "I should have stayed."
Five thousand people attended the funeral at the Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church on Cheltenham Avenue, not far from where he would be interred, in Ivy Hil Cemetery. Marvis says that particulars of that day are vague, that he was still in a state of disbelief. "There were just so many people," Marvis says. Those in attendance included the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and boxing legends Bernard Hopkins, Larry Holmes and Ali, who is but a ghost of the flashy champion he once was, his 69-year-old body ravaged by Parkinson's disease. Marvis, who got a chance to visit with him in a private room, leaned over, kissed him on the forehead and thanked him for coming.
I asked Marvis if Ali had said anything to him.
"He didn't say anything," Marvis says. "He didn't have to say anything because he was there."
Did Ali recognize him?
"Yes," Marvis says. "He looked good. Not like the Ali we once knew, but good. Like I said, Mr. Ali is a good man. All of us once in our lives have done or said something we regret. Whatever has been done has been forgiven."
Marvis says he is healing every day. But he is still steeped in grief and it is hard to for him to accept the fact that "Pop is no longer around to talk to." His fiancée did not agree to be interviewed, but Menz, Wolff and others agree that Marvis is doing better. They hope that he'll one day return to Philadelphia to live, perhaps even train some fighters. Says Fleischer, the volunteer counselor at Frazier's gym, "Marvis always lived in the shadow of his father. But now that shadow has been lifted."
Images of the years they had together come back to Marvis with frequency. He remembers how fearful his father was of flying, how his father would call him and say with a laugh: "They got me on a plane again, son. They're trying to get me." And Marvis would say, "Who's trying to get you, Pop?" There was the day, years before that, when his father asked him to get a bag from across the room and Marvis said, "Wait a minute." Oh, how the room shook with that intimating voice that snapped: "Get over here!" But it will always be the softer side of his father that Marvis will remember, particularly the day Marvis staggered back to his corner after Holmes had beaten him. Joe caught Marvis in his arms and whispered to him, "Don't worry about it, son. Daddy loves you."
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