The statue, while appreciated and overdue, represents a clear inequality in the visibility of black history through public sculptures in Philadelphia.
I was a teenager wearing a wrestling t-shirt when I met legendary boxer, Mr. Joe Frazier, in a hotel lobby a few minutes from the Philadelphia International Airport.
Sitting at the bar, he wore a cowboy hat and owned a gentle nature, one that was in total contrast to the barbarism he showcased in the boxing ring.
He told me to make a fist, and he provided an example. His hands, like his legacy, were larger than life. He smiled, I smiled, and we took a picture.
That is my one and only memory of Mr. Frazier, a great Philadelphian whose likeness was encased in a bronze statue and unveiled yesterday in front of Xfinity Live in South Philadelphia.
While it’s a cool anecdote to share—and one I’m sure my millennial peers can’t replicate—it fails in comparison to the one shared by Mr. Quenell Jones, a cinematographer who filmed “Joe Frazier: When the Smoke Clears,” Hulu’s first-ever Documentary of the Month.
Mr. Jones, who like me was snapping photos of the thick-bodied statute, had traveled and been in communication with Mr. Frazier for “five to six years.”
“He was the most humble person I’ve ever met. I’ve never met a person like that… I don’t think I’ve ever met a celebrity who was on that level… He was very regular person,” said Mr. Jones, who reflected on a particular moment in history where the champ, on the way to the airport for a big event, stopped and gave a ride to a homeless person. “The statue,” he continued, “is well deserved.”
More than well-deserved, the statue represents a clear inequality in the visibility of black history through public sculptures in Philadelphia. In other words, Mr. Frazier’s statue illuminates the reality that there are little-to-no outdoor statues of famous black Philadelphians.
“Its racism, plain and simple,” said Mr. Abdul Malik, a lifelong Philadelphian who traveled from the Northeast to the most southern part of the City to “take it all in and see Joe Frazier in living color.”
I arrived close to noon and Mr. Malik—a black man in his late fifties or early sixties—had already been standing outside Xfinity Live, alone, for at least an hour.
“He was the greatest slugger ever… Smoking Joe Frazier!,” he said, uttering the champ’s last name with a cadence that expressed glee and celebration.
As folks passed by us, heading into Citizens Bank Park, Mr. Malik would shout “Smoking Joe Frazier! This ain’t Rocky, this ain’t no Hollywood myth, this is the real champ!”
Amidst the good mood, Mr. Malik was admittedly saddened that it took this long for the City to honor Mr. Frazier and that his outdoor statue is a rare permanent celebration of black male achievement in Philadelphia.
“We had a lot of great blacks that did a lot. They are unsung heroes… heroes on a national and local level and they don’t even have a plaque,” said Mr. Malik, who was clearly offended that a fictional character, Rocky Balboa, was encased in bronze before a real hometown hero.
Like Mr. Jones, Mr. Malik, too, spoke of Mr. Frazier’s humility.
“He was just a working man, and his work was boxing. He didn’t make a big fuss about himself; he was a regular fella, but he didn’t get his due. This statue … it should’ve been here.”
Mr. Jones said “it’s hard to argue the negative,” but agreed with Mr. Malik, saying that the statue should’ve been erected “thirty years ago.”
Nonetheless, Mr. Jones is grateful that, in 2015, Mr. Frazier has been deified and will be on display for future generations to learn about.
“This statue is the culmination of his life… The final piece of his puzzle,” Mr. Jones said.
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Photo: The bronze statue of legendary boxer, Mr. Joe Frazier, outside Xfinity Live in South Philadelphia/C. Norris – ©2015