By Gianluca (Rio) Di Caro
I was deeply saddened to hear that Joe Frazier passed away earlier today, like I’m sure most of the boxing world was. He was a living legend and right up to his passing was so dedicated to the sport that bought him fame and fortune.
Whilst most people will remember Joe for his trilogy of fights with Ali, I remember him with deep affection for a totally different reason… It was Joe and his son Marvis that first got me involved in boxing.
In late 2005, whilst I was recovering from a serious illness, I traveled to Philadelphia to spend some time with my fiancee Marianne Marston, who was there on an extended business trip.
The day I arrived in Philly Marianne was particularly buoyant, not because I had made the trip but because that afternoon she had accidentally met with Joe in a coffee shop opposite our hotel.
Marianne, who had recently started boxing training with Choleton Senior in London, was recounting the story to me of how they met, before saying that Joe had invited her to try out at his North Philadelphia gym.
The very next morning we grabbed a cab and made our way along Broad Street, we passed the famous Blue Horizon – which also sadly is no longer with us, well as a boxing venue anyway – and continued North to a rather run down part of Philly.
When we arrived at the gym we were greeted by Joe’s son Marvis, Marianne showed him the card Joe had given her and told him that Joe invited her to try out at the gym. Marvis welcomed us both with open arms and sent Marianne to get changed.
About half an hour later, whilst Marvis was taking Marianne on the pads, a dapper older gent arrived and stood by the side of the ring observing. At the time I was sitting on one of the sofas in the waiting area reading, for some reason I kept stopping and looking over at the new arrival, he was intently watching the session but never spoke a word.
When Marvis had finished the session the older guy called Marianne over, Marianne looked nervous as she spoke with him and it was then that it dawned on me that this was the legendary Smokin’ Joe himself.
Joe got Marianne to climb out of the ring and personally started working with her, adjusting her stance before getting her to work on the heavy bag, speed bag and uppercut bag. Marianne was clearly nervous, but Joe was a patient teacher and he gave her nearly two hours of his time, during which he actively demonstrated virtually everything.
After they had finished and Marianne had got changed Joe summoned us to his office, where he promptly told Marianne that she is very good, technically a bit rough but has a lot of potential and that he would like her to become part of Team Frazier.
A training schedule was set there and then for the six weeks Marianne would be in Philly this trip. For the rest of the stay we were at the gym at 9 am sharp, I would sit reading while Joe, or when he wasn’t there Val Colbert or Marvis, would work with Marianne.
After about a week or so Joe decided Marianne was ready to spar and called over a lad named Sean and told him to glove up. Marianne soon learned that sparring in Philadelphia is different to London, it’s not about learning it’s about surviving.
Throughout the session Joe barely spoke, the only time he did was to instruct Marianne when to let rip with a big left hook – something that confused me at first so I turned to Marvis and asked why Joe kept encouraging Marianne to throw her left hook, he simply told me to watch Joe’s face when she throws it, so I did and each time Joe’s face would light up.
It was then that I realised just how much Joe loves passing on his boxing skills and the thrill he gets when a student effectively uses a particular aspect he has taught. He was the king of the left hook so Marianne being a southpaw he’d put a lot of work into developing her left hook.
After the first six weeks training were over we flew back to London and tried to find a gym for Marianne to train at in London, it was a joke All Stars being the only one to even entertain any form of training, although they offered her Boxercise!!!!
Joe’s secretary Barbie kept in touch, by e.mail, with instructions from Joe on what training he wanted Marianne to do as well as checking that she was OK. After just three or four weeks Marianne was getting so frustrated that she decided we were to return to Philly for another month or so in order to train properly.
As before I would just sit and read while she trained, Joe and the rest of the team would chat with me occasionally but that was the total level of our contact for about six months or so during the back and forward traveling for Marianne’s training.
About a day or so into our September visit Marvis came over to speak with me and asked if I could help get some of the youngsters in the gym, as well as the gym itself, some media exposure as he and Joe was impressed with the levels Marianne received after I had put out a press release on her being trained by Joe.
Of course I did and the next thing I know I became the publicist for the gym and worked alongside Marvis and Barbie on raising the profile of the gym, in order to attract more fighters, as well as started approaching sponsors, as the gym building was in very poor condition and Marvis had a vision to develop it into the Joe Frazier Boxing Museum.
We were still only spending a month or so at a time in Philly, however this was set to change. When we returned in November Joe called Marianne in to the office to discuss her pro debuting the following spring. Joe then added that he wanted her to move to Philly for six months so he could fully prepare her for the proposed debut full time.
In January 2007 we made the move and now being fully a part of the team I started to spend more and more time with Joe, he’d often call me into his office to just chat. I found these times nothing short of awesome, I mean there I am sitting with one of the greatest boxers of all time
When Joe talked about his career it was with such enthusiasm and affection. It was also not unusual for Joe to reenact aspects of past fights. I’m not talking sitting there throwing punches I’m talking about full enactment, bear in mind how frail Joe was at this time yet there he was moving about like a man half his age and throwing punches from every conceivable angle, including his fearsome trademark left hooks.
Joe, Marvis and Barbie were wonderful to work with, their enthusiasm for the sport and the gym was utterly contagious, I would be at the gym from 9am through to the gym closing around 8pm, except when the gym closed early for us to go to a pro show at the Blue Horizon or as a team we went to support the gym’s amateurs at an event.
This was something else I found particularly wonderful about Joe, it didn’t matter if you were a novice amateur or a pro, he would support everyone in the gym. If a gym fighter had a fight he would move heaven and earth to be there to support them and actively encouraged everyone to do the same, which they did after all they were Team Frazier and proud of it.
Being full time at the gym I also started to discover other elements of this great man, even though he barely had two halfpennies to rub together, he was an extraordinarily generous man who would help anyone in need.
One example of Joe’s generosity and willingness to help anyone. A young lad was involved in the gang scene in LA and had been shot and seriously injured. A trainer friend of Joe’s called him to tell him about the youngster, saying that if he doesn’t get away from LA he’ll be dead within the year.
Joe didn’t hesitate and soon arranged for the lad to move to Philly and train at his gym. The youngster soon became one of the stars of the Frazier gym amateur squad. In return the lad repaid Joe’s faith in him by giving his time willingly and helping the younger lads at the gym prepare whenever he could, as did all the Frazier fighters, they knew that’s what Joe did with them.
In early February 2008 Joe asked me to arrange a fund raising event for one of his fighters, Faatimah Balmer, who had just made the regionals of the Golden Gloves. Joe said that he would attend and personally sign gloves etc. for those that attend.
Unfortunately on the night Joe was unable to attend, but supplied various pairs of signed gloves to auction on the night.
The following morning Joe being Joe, felt so bad that he hadn’t made it on the night, asked me to contact the bar, that had given over their premises for the fund raiser, to let them know that he would be coming there that evening to personally thank them.
That’s Joe for you here we are on the 15th February, just a few days before he goes into hospital for a major operation, and he felt it was the honourable thing to go and make a personal appearance. He didn’t just pop in either Joe, Marianne and myself were there for almost two hours, during which Joe spent almost every second talking with, as well as signing autographs for, everyone there that evening.
Even during his time in hospital Joe kept his finger on the pulse, metaphorically speaking, and would ring up to find out how the fighters were doing, as well as check everything was OK with myself. There’s us worrying about his health yet there’s him worrying about us!
Just over a month after Joe came out of hospital a decision was made by Joe and his personal manager to close the gym, due to the mezzanine that housed the changing rooms partially collapsing.
Despite the fact that Marvis managed the gym, Joe personally rang all the fighters and staff to inform them of the closure. I can’t speak for the others but when he rang me he was so apologetic, he was clearly choked up and thanked me for all I had done for him, the fighters and the gym.
We had kept in regular contact until Marianne and I returned to the UK in 2009, but since then we had only spoken occasionally.
These are just a few of the fondest of memories I have from the time I spent with Joe, Marvis and the rest of Team Frazier. Joe, and Marvis, inspired both Marianne and myself. But it was Joe’s belief in us, as well as his encouragement, that has seen us both pursuing Boxing based careers.
Finally I would like to say, my fond memories of Joe and the kindness and support he showed Marianne and myself will stay with me until the day I am also laid to rest.
God Bless and Rest In Peace Joe.