Joe Frazier, the great former heavyweight champion, died of liver cancer in November, but not before granting writer Katherine Dunn a lengthy interview that she turned into a terrific portrait of the man.
Frazier is best known as the boxer who defeated Muhammad Ali on March 8, 1971, in the most famous bout in history, but Dunn paints an indelible picture of Joe Frazier the man in her profile that appears in the March issue of Playboy.
She takes you inside Frazier's personal life with vivid details. She tells how, despite being blind in one eye, he repeatedly managed to pass eye examinations.
Frazier had also injured his left eye while preparing for the Olympics. He was hitting a speed bag when the steel swivel broke and a piece of shrapnel flew into his eye. The lens was damaged, the vision clouded. No boxing commission in the country would have allowed Frazier to fight as a pro if word got out. He kept it secret.
All these years later he laughed like a naughty kid, explaining how he got through dozens of commission eye exams by memorizing the eye chart and switching hands instead of eyes when the doctor said "And now cover the other one."
She writes of his infidelity and his long-time relationship with Denise Menz, who was at Frazier's side when he finally succumbed to liver cancer.
Menz went from being the other woman to his constant companion, the most significant figure in his life. She helped guide him through his post-retirement years with skill and aplomb.
On the night Frazier flattened Buster Mathis, another important thing happened. At a party after the fight, the 24-year-old Frazier met Denise Menz, the spunky 19-year-old from New Jersey who would be his lover, friend, office manager, interior decorator, supply clerk, nurse, historian, jokester and companion off and on for the rest of his life.
The laughing, redheaded Menz welcomed me into the apartment she'd been sharing with Frazier since his last spinal surgery, in 2008. She said, "I have a Ph.D. in Frazierology." In addition to running the popular Menz Restaurant near Cape May, New Jersey with her family, Denise is an interior designer. The big front room was full of comfort and grace all the way to the glass wall looking onto the terrace.
Dunn eloquently tells the tale of the time when Frazier was married and Menz was the other woman. She checked into a hotel with Frazier, only to find out he had three other women in the same hotel.
Over the decades, when Denise got mad at Frazier, it was usually over women. The first time, she said, she was devastated. "I was so naive. I knew I was the other woman, but I didn't know there were others."
The best stuff, though, is when she talks about the pressure Frazier felt in 1971 in the build-up to the first Ali fight. Frazier was protected by the police but still didn't feel safe.
There were so many police around him, even as he trained, that Frazier said he felt like "a jailbird."
The pressure became most intense as the fight neared, and Dunn skillfully weaves a narrative.
Frazier was set to fight Ali on March 8, 1971. Two days before, Philadelphia police escorted Frazier to New York City. In his gold Cadillac the usually friendly fighter was so silent and grim that the cops joked about taking an order for his last meal.
In Manhattan a contingent of New York cops met the Cadillac and guarded his hotel room. When fight time came the police smuggled Frazier into Madison Square Garden through an underground tunnel to avoid the mobs outside.
It's a wonderful piece about a fascinating man and one of the greatest boxers ever.
It's so good, you can say you read Playboy for the articles and, at least this time, you'd be telling the truth. (Warning: The landing pages hosting the Frazier story contains links to explicit content.)