Merchant Remembers “His Fighter”
By Steve Kim, MaxBoxing (Nov 9, 2011) Doghouse Boxing
Photo: Larry Merchant
Back during his run as a leading sports columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, Larry Merchant also dabbled in managing boxers. Well, kinda sorta but not really, as Merchant was part of Cloverlay, Inc., a consortium of investors united to support the professional endeavors of one Joe Frazier, who died on Monday from liver cancer.
“When Joe won the gold medal at the '64 Olympics in Tokyo, he came home and went to work in the slaughterhouse where he had worked since he had come to Philadelphia where he had come to learn how to fight as a teenager,” explained Merchant. “He couldn't afford to train full-time. So here was a gold medal winner in the heavyweight division, which Ali was the star of at the time, and some community leaders- including church men and lawyers and political people- got together and formed Cloverlay out of 80 shares for $250 a share, $20,000 so that Joe could quit his job and train full-time.”
“And they also made a plan for his financial future as part of that- if there would be a financial future, which of course there was. I bought a share, invested my $250 sort of as a stunt as a columnist so that I could write about Joe as ‘my fighter.’”
As he took a gig with the New York Post a few years later, he eventually cashed in.
“I left for New York about two years later when Joe was into his professional career. He had about a dozen or 15 fights and I sold the share for $2,000- which was a huge win,” recalled Merchant. “But two years later, it was worth $14,000 and over the years, Joe always kidded me about selling him short.”
Yeah, Merchant is like that guy who sold his Apple stock in 2000.

Laughing at the thought, Merchant says, “Well, you take a win when you can get it. Mainly, it was because I didn't think the readers in New York would get the gag as much as the readers in Philadelphia of my being part of the management team of a fighter I was covering.”
Of the lasting image he has of “Smokin’ Joe,” Merchant, who has always preferred rugged bangers to stylists, stated, “You see a lot of Joe Frazier-type fighters on the lower echelons of boxing, guys that don't bring a lot of pure boxing skills to the game and very few rise to the top. Somewhere along the way, they get nailed or don't train hard or some boxer outwits them. In Joe's case, the test came at a fight at the Madison Square Garden, his first there, against real tough, strong Oscar Bonavena and Bonavena knocked him down twice in a round and at that time, you had a three-knockdown rule and there might have been a minute or more left in the round and that looked like, ‘This is it. We found out that Joe Frazier didn't have the right stuff to be at the top echelon.’ But he survived the round and went on to win the fight. At that time, you could say, ‘OK, we're looking at a potential [Rocky] Marciano or [Jack] Dempsey here.’”
Merchant was there at the Garden the night of March 8, 1971 when Frazier kicked off his historic trilogy with Muhammad Ali. There will most likely never be a night quite like this ever again, not just in boxing, but in sports.
“It seems doubtful. ‘Ever again’ is a long time,” he said, laughing, “but the world stopped. Two undefeated champions, Ali had been embargoed from boxing for more than three years because he refused to go in the Army during the war in Vietnam. He was reviled by many figures, many people. He was a polarizing figure. People either loved him or adored him or they thought he was everything that was wrong with the anti-Vietnam and the pro-black racial movements at that time, so there was a clear dividing line. Joe and he were polar opposites in and out of the ring and that will ring through the ages.”
This truly was the “Fight of the Century.” While the rematch between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling might have had more historical or political importance, for pure spectacle, nothing will match this event, won by Frazier, who put an exclamation point on the proceedings by flooring Ali in the 15th round with his trademark left hook.
“I can still feel the visceral vibrations in the crowd in that fight. The fight in which there were hundreds of politicians and hoodlums in their black suits and ties at ringside, many stars of show business, etc. How often has a fight been building for years? We have something like it on a somewhat lesser cosmic count with [Floyd] Mayweather and [Manny] Pacquiao but this is the heavyweight championship of the world. This was the most famous athlete in the world, Ali, and the expectations could have not have been higher and both the fight, as a fight and as a drama, exceeded the expectations.”
After premature reports of his death on Sunday night, it was confirmed on Monday that Frazier had indeed passed away at the age of 67. While he may have felt overshadowed being the foil to Ali, the sports world paid proper tribute to this man. “Monday Night Football” reported his death with a news cut-in. “SportsCenter” made his passing the lead and outlets like Yahoo! made it their cover story. It truly reminded you of the place boxing once had in our society and Frazier’s contributions to it.
“I was happily surprised that he got his full due,” remarked Merchant, on how the media covered Frazier’s death. “Look, he got a lot of due during his lifetime. I don't know anybody that didn't love Joe Frazier as an athlete and as a good guy, so this was a fitting tribute in recognition of a great athlete who had been part of a long-running, almost mid-century melodrama that is beyond unforgettable- it's historic.”
Some random thoughts on Frazier in light of his untimely demise...
- I, like many of you, never actually saw Frazier fight live. I was born about nine months after the first Frazier-Ali clash but it's like this: if you're a baseball fan, you didn't have to actually see Babe Ruth in person to know all about “The Bambino.” While he might have been overshadowed by “The Greatest” (and who isn't?), Frazier was a guy who was involved in perhaps the most significant prizefight of all-time, became the first man to defeat Ali as a professional and engaged in what many believe to be the best heavyweight title fight ever, “The Thrilla in Manila.”
He was a standout in the golden age of heavyweight boxing, when being its champion gave one the designation as “the baddest man on the planet,” likely making him among the five or 10 most famous people on the planet.
- Frazier's passing is a reminder of just how big boxing once was in America, when it was truly mainstream. It was great to see “SportsCenter” make it its lead story (with an vignette from Jeremy Schapp). Just think about it; when was the last time boxing ever led off this iconic show? It obviously resonated on an international scale also, as I was asked to talk about his life and times on sports radio shows in Australia and Toronto and my colleagues were also called upon to talk about his passing on other programs throughout the world.
- This was a hard man and a harder fighter. Yeah, while at his peak, Frazier was just right around 205 pounds, proof that while today's heavyweights are bigger, that doesn't necessarily equate to being better. He was the classic pressure fighter who could overcome one's skill with his unrelenting will, time and time again. 
- I would've paid money to see a prime Frazier face the best version of Evander Holyfield.
- And please, any comparisons to a potential Pacquiao-Mayweather fight being as significant as Frazier-Ali I is an insult. There are some things that are bigger and more important than pay-per-view revenue or attendance figures. Frazier-Ali was a fight that truly resonated with the general public and was a cultural phenomenon. You didn't need any “24/7”s and the like because boxing back then was every bit the major sport as the NFL and Major League Baseball in those days.
Think about it; “Ol’ Blue Eyes” himself, Frank Sinatra, worked as a ringside photographer for Time magazine just to ensure himself the best possible vantage point for this epic. You think Justin Bieber would do that for Pacquiao-Mayweather? (yeah, I know, I know. I put a parallel between the “Chairman of the Board” and “The Biebs”).
- Anyone else remember that classic scene when “Smokin’ Joe” nearly sank while trying to swim in ABC Sports’ “The “Superstars” competition in the ‘70s? Talk about “Drown goes Frazier…”
- I think it's looooong overdue that Philadelphia, which has a statue of a fictitious boxer (Rocky Balboa), erect one of Frazier. Despite being born in Beaufort, South Carolina, he was synonymous with Philly. His death to me, along with the demise of the Blue Horizon, is very symbolic of the fading impact and importance the sport of boxing has on this city. Long ago, it was known as a “boxing city.” I'm not sure you can say that anymore.
- Rest in peace, Joe Frazier. You were indeed the very definition of an honest fighter.
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