TWO WEEKS ago, the sad news came that the
Philly boxing landmark known as Joe
Frazier's Gym was closing.
The full story was nicely chronicled by Bernard Fernandez in the Daily News, but the first word came to me earlier when a gym-rat friend called to tell me that the fighters at Frazier's were looking for a new home, launching the rumor that Smokin' Joe's place was about to close.
In the official release from the gym, there seemed to be some ray of hope about the gym reopening after renovations or once new investors were found.
But once the actual quotes were digested, they did little to soften the blow of losing yet another Philly boxing treasure.
The list of the city's boarded-up gyms and arenas is a long one. Frazier's is just the latest casualty. But there is something particularly painful this time. Perhaps it's because this is the first time it's happening to me.
As a 45-year-old who grew up at the Spectrum fights, my landmarks still exist: the Spectrum, Blue Horizon, Peltz Boxing and, until now, Smokin' Joe's gym.
As a youngish student of Philly boxing, I've missed most of the "good old days." I never went to the Arena, the Cambria, Shibe Park, Phillies Ball Park, Toppi Stadium, the Met or many, many of the other legendary venues.
Bob Montgomery, Lew Tendler, Tommy Loughran, Midget Wolgast and most of the fighters listed on my PhillyBoxingHistory.com are from before my time. But they've become part of me in a way I can't articulate.
But, in truth, I never "lost" any of them. Quite the opposite. I've actually found these all-time greats in the library, on film and by creating the Web site. I obsessively collect posters, photos and other memorabilia as a way to make these heroes real for me.
It's the only way for me to own all those experiences I've missed. It's an expensive habit, but it works for me.
But there is a loss I've actually experienced, by watching my favorite boxers slip from their prime. When Matthew Saad Muhammad lost his light-heavyweight title to Dwight Braxton, it seemed impossible. After he'd somehow pulled victories from all those close calls, it felt as if he'd never lose a fight. Although I knew that it had to eventually happen, it was easy to pretend otherwise.
When Jeff Chandler finally lost his bantamweight crown, I witnessed a different type of seemingly unbeatable fighter become human. Jeff, the first great fighter I ever watched in person, never fought again. It was hard to accept, but the constant flow of good fighters back then helped ease the pain. Boxing is a timeline that constantly renews itself. As hard as it is to watch one fighter's career come to an end, another promising boxer can capture your imagination and loyalty and make you a fan again.
But losing one of the physical foundations of local boxing feels different. The brick-and-mortar buildings should outlive the fleeting ring careers they host.
Frazier's Gym has been up there on North Broad for almost as long as I've been alive and certainly for the entire time I've been aware of boxing.
Originally named the Cloverlay Gym, and opened especially for Joe in 1968, Frazier's has always been one of the true symbols of Philadelphia boxing. Countless boxers passed through the place and many went on to great careers.
But unlike the continuum of boxers, there is no promise of renewal. There will never be another Frazier's Gym. Like the Blue Horizon, which announced financial troubles and its potential sale in 2007, once one of these places goes away, it will probably never return as a boxing site.
The tough business of the local fight game in the city won't allow it. The struggling Blue Horizon is still in the fight, but Frazier's Gym has lost its battle.
I suppose it's inevitable that all the great places and people of the sport must pass on. For my older friends who experienced all those places and personalities of the past, as well as for the younger ones to whom local boxing is the New Alhambra, and outdoor fights mean Beetle Juice at the Lagoon, the passing of Frazier's Gym may not feel as heavy.
But for guys my age, this one is significant. It's confirmation that the years are slipping by and the things we love so much will be completely off the next generation's radar - even the things that MUST be remembered.
Luckily we still have Joe Frazier around. Our heavyweight champ is still alive and kicking and looking quite good at ringside of the many local fights he attends. He says the walking stick is necessary, but I believe it's just part of his dapper style.
But we must hold onto Joe and the many other boxers of the past who remain: Harold Johnson, Joey Giardello, Dan Bucceroni, George Benton - and honor and appreciate them every chance we get.