Les Wolff is the CEO of Smart Marketing Group (www.smartmarketinggroup.com) and has been in the marketing “arena” for 45+ years. He has worked in all areas of the marketing spectrum which led him to cross paths with Smokin’ Joe and he also has worked with a number of other boxers in marketing related activities such as Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, George Chuvalo and Joe Bugner to name a few. But the man who traveled the world with “Smokin” Joe Frazier to such places as the UK and Australia during the last seven years of Frazier’s life loved, respected and admired him as much for how he was “outside” the ring as his history within it.
Not long before Frazier’s passing, Wolff brought Joe down to the Fraim’s Boys and Girls Club in Wilmington, DE, at the request of a boxing all around guy Dave Ruff who still works at the club. Having been a visitor of Frazier’s gym & living in the same town of Lafayette Hill, PA, as he once did going back over thirty years. I even attended a celebration for him there that a Jewish group held for him on New Year’s Day but never did I see him like I did at the Boys and Girls Club that day. The kids loved him and he was really good with them. Prior to meeting the youngsters Joe talked about his weight being low to us but there were no signs of him being ill.
It was also a day of meeting Wolff whom today I consider a friend. I’ve never heard anyone speak of Frazier wish such admiration and love. He agreed to answer some questions for DHB about the man they called “Smokin” Joe Frazier!
KEN HISSNER: Les, it’s been a pleasure knowing you for the short time I have. You have always been willing to talk about Joe and no one I’ve met possibly besides his son Marvis who called him “Pop” showed his love for the Hall of Fame former Olympic Gold medalist and world heavyweight champion like you. When did you first meet Joe?
I was introduced to Joe in early 2004 by an acquaintance of his because like many professional athletes, he had financial troubles brought on by a variety of factors including poor management. I was asked to use our marketing skills and knowledge to clear up that situation, which I’m glad to say we did. As tough as he was in the ring, outside it he was a “soft touch” for many, due to his generous and down-to-earth nature developed as a young boy in South Carolina and through the positive influence of his mother, Dolly.
KEN HISSNER: I know Kenny Rainford from the UK mentioned to me that you had Joe over in the UK. How did the fans receive Joe there?
Joe had a huge fan base in the UK, which we visited several times, and was loved by fighters, promoters and fans, who showed their admiration and respect everywhere we went. If you keep in mind his first fight with Ali was viewed by 300 million, on closed circuit TV (in theaters) around the globe. It was, at that time the largest sporting event in the world and it’s still up there today when you consider an event between 2 people. In fact, the Vietnam War stopped so our military could listen to it on Armed Forces Radio.
KEN HISSNER: I also know you had Joe to Australia. Were there other countries? What states did the two of you travel to?
We traveled to Australia 4 times, where Joe had the pleasure of reuniting with his friend (and former opponent) Joe Bugner. We also visited New Zealand, Scotland, Ireland as well as England. Obviously we traveled throughout all areas of the USA, from coast to coast, but one incident I remember most was when in Joe’s hometown of Beaufort, the Governor of South Carolina, gave Joe the highest award in the state, the Palmetto Award.
KEN HISSNER: Like most former boxers and especially world champions they seem to go through their money once the fame and fortune dies down. I heard there was a time Joe even lived at his gym on Broad Street in North Philly. Would you say he was better off financially at the end of his life than when you first served as his business manager?
Well, when I met Joe he was living in the third floor of his gym, but it was a magnificently designed loft, one which struck many visitors speechless. It was quite stylish and represented in the décor many aspects of his life. Yes, as I mentioned previously his dire financial situation was the main reason for us teaming up, fortunately, we were able to reverse that situation.
KEN HISSNER: Do you have much memorabilia of Joe’s as well as other forms of collectibles that can be purchased?
The mementos and memorabilia I have came from my travels with Joe, as well as items he gave me. Most of his fight-related memorabilia was sold off long before I knew him. I have recently placed most of my collection with the international auction house 00 Auctionata for a late February or early March auction. These items will be available via their website www.auctionata.com.Those wanting more information should contact Maya O’Donnell-Shah (Maya.Shah @auctionata.com). I have a few items that I’m selling privately. If anyone is interested, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org). In both cases the revenue generated is targeted to underwrite some projects to ensure Joe’s legacy is not forgotten. One such venture is a book on what he was like “outside” the ring with inspirational, motivational messages.
KEN HISSNER: If you had to pick out one or two funny stories that happened when you were with Joe could you talk about them?
Two that come to mind involved fan’s reactions. We were in a NYC restaurant when someone came up to Joe and said “Did anyone ever tell you that you look like the boxer Joe Frazier?” Without a moment’s hesitation Smoke responded with a straight face, ”Yes, once or twice that has happened.” My favorite story related to an event I took him to shortly after we joined forces. I wasn’t sure who was his fan base, so we went to a NASCAR event at the Poconos Highlands Raceway to measure the crowd’s response to his unannounced visit. Well, we couldn’t move more than 2 feet for almost 6 hours, and Richard Petty came out of his custom bus to have a picture taken with the champ. Joe was asked to give a short speech to the drivers, which was well received. Then we were standing by a high chain link fence, when a very tall, attractive blonde who looked like she stepped out of a fashion magazine, came up to the other size of the fence, asked someone to lift her up so she could lean over the fence to talk to Joe. Someone did and then she asked Joe if he would mind “signing her breasts.” He agreed and when he was done I asked him why it took so long and he simply smiled at me and said “Lot of territory to cover, Les.”
KEN HISSNER: I’ve seen Joe on video with other world champions like Muhammad Ali, Ken Norton and George Foreman. Were you part of this?
I was part of several documentaries made on Joe, but there were others created before we had met.
KEN HISSNER: I know like too many families at Joe’s death the children -- and I believe there were eleven of them -- there were disputes. I know he had two viewings of which I attended the one at his church. Did things go the way you would have liked them for Joe?
As I was raised to say nothing if you can’t say anything complimentary, so I’ll pass on that opportunity. I do believe Joe would have been pleased by the turnout, especially of fans and those whom he worked with and fought against like Ali & Chuvalo.
KEN HISSNER: I’m sure Joe talked about the opponents he fought. Could you share a couple of them with me and for the readers and fans?
Actually, we really didn’t have too many conversations related to the past as our focus was on the present and what we could do in the future. But I saw that he had respect for those I met, like Foreman, Chuvalo, and Bugner. As for Ali, what I heard most was Joe’s disappointment in the way Ali turned on him after Joe had reached out in friendship by being supportive to help him out and at the time Ali had it rough. It seemed to me that he could never understand Ali’s behavior because in Joe’s book when you were a friend, you were a friend for life. Smoke had a philosophy – “There is no right way to do wrong or any wrong way to do right” and he did his best to live by that rule.
KEN HISSNER: I know you attended the 7th Annual Briscoe Awards in South Philly that John Di Santo runs each year. You were kind enough to give me several dolls of Joe as he appeared in the Rocky movie. You said to give it to one of the kids and you should have seen the looks on promoter Damon Feldman’s daughter’s face when I gave one to her. I also gave one to former boxer and now trainer Marty Shuler the brother of James Shuler, who was signed by MSG along with Joe’s son Marvis. You wouldn’t take anything for them but are they available now for purchase to the many fans of Joe’s?
I’m glad that it brought some smiled to the recipients. I have a limited number of them available, and I am happy to offer them for $50 each, which would include all packaging and shipping costs. Again, if there is interest contact me at email@example.com
KEN HISSNER: I know there is a statue of Joe that will be unveiled possibly in April in Philadelphia. I think you had another idea what should have been done. Can you speak about that?
We will all agree Smokin Joe Frazier was a true world champion, but he was also that outside the ring. I would like to see that represented in the sculpture. In particular, a major reason for the existence of his gym was to bring kids off the street, give them self confidence and convince them they could be “Champions” themselves, if they would apply themselves in school and life in general. There was a great photo in Joe’s gym that reflected his dedication to youth and it would have been nice to see that incorporated in the statue design.
KEN HISSNER: Les, if you had to in a sentence or two describe Joe Frazier to someone who was to ask you what would you say?
I can say it just one word … CLASS!
KEN HISSNER: Les, I want to thank you for taking the time to answer these questions and I know you will help keep the memory of your friend “Smokin” Joe Frazier alive!
I’ll do my best in a number of ways – books, films, speeches and much more. Plus I believe will his many friends and fans. If there are those who have stories relating to experiences with Joe that they would like to share please have them contact me.
Please send all questions and comments to Ken Hissner at: Kenhissner@gmail.com