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Frazier still looking for a little Philly love

PHILADELPHIA -- Joe Frazier is the most famous person in Philadelphia, by far -- it's not even close. But in the City of Brotherly Love he doesn't get much love. There's no plaque or statue in town honoring the first man to beat Muhammad Ali, the former world heavyweight champ and Olympic gold medalist, who has been living in Philly since 1961. Instead there is a statue of Rocky Balboa.

The only thing in the city with Frazier's name on it is Joe Frazier's Gym, which is way up on North Broad Street -- far beyond where most people venture from downtown. And now after 40 years, including at least a decade of hard times, the gym building is up for sale.

"A lot of great champions have come through the gym. I kept a lot of young men and girls out of trouble in the city because they had a place to go," Frazier says. "But the gym is really costing my son Marvis and I a whole lot of love -- and you know how you spell love, right? M-O-N-E-Y. "

If you think Ali and George Foreman beat on Frazier pretty good, well, life since those days in Manila, Jamaica and Madison Square Garden has been working a few extra rounds, and going to the body. But Smokin' Joe is still hanging in there.

In June, Frazier attended two funerals in two states, for older brothers Jake and Tommy. In 2007 he was in a legal tussle with his daughter, Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, who is a municipal court judge, and if you ask her how cool it is to have Smokin' Joe Frazier as a dad, she might smile politely and ask you to appreciate how great your own father is.

Frazier's indomitable body is still recovering from a terrible accident he had in 2002. After pulling out of a gas station next to his gym, his gas pedal stuck and the brakes and air bag failed. He crashed and split his spine.

That, and the multiple surgeries since (the most recent in February) have taken their toll on him. He's down about 30 pounds. When boxing writers saw Frazier in a wheelchair at their 2006 annual awards dinner, many just figured "that's boxing." And when a recent article called Frazier 74 years old by mistake (he's 64), it was easy to understand the confusion.

"I'm coming along. I think the Lord has given me much more energy and know-how to accept whatever they throw at me," Frazier says. "When you've been beat up bad in a car, all things come at you more times than one. It takes a while. I can move around, do things for myself. The most important thing is to drive a car. I had a little trouble mashing the gas and the brakes so I can take off and I can stop it. I'm driving one of the old Cadillacs I love."

Frazier, who now walks along with a cane, rarely took a step backward in the ring, and if he isn't ready to give ground now, you have to think his years of intense physical conditioning are keeping him in the game.

"Nobody had to wake me up in the morning for roadwork, for 18, 19 years," he says.

He still hits the road nearly every week for public appearances.

"I go all over the world, sign my name, say hello to the fine people," he says. "Upstate New York, Canada, Los Angeles. Los Angeles to Vegas, Vegas to New Zealand."

In New Zealand, he greeted workers at the opening of a Mitsubishi truck factory and sang at an event for Schick razors. He did a reality show in Finland and an episode for the canceled CBS show "Secret Talents of the Stars." This week, he was in Idaho signing autographs at a car auction -- fixing and driving old cars has always been his passion -- before flying to Connecticut to appear in the "Friday Night Fights" studio.

Frazier has never been a big fan of the Rocky movies. When Stallone was writing the first one, he talked to Smokin' Joe and some other real Philly fighters to get some ideas. Joe used to do roadwork through the city streets early in the mornings, and when he first arrived in Philly without a job he worked in a kosher slaughterhouse -- and punched beef when he couldn't get to the gym. Everybody thinks that stuff was Rocky's idea.

It would nice if Frazier could get just a little more L-O-V-E at in Philly. A statue, maybe?

"We're not going to try and pat myself on the shoulder, about what they should do," Frazier says, but admits: "I would love that. My friends would come from all over to see what it looks like. You got [Interstate] 95, you got 76. You got got 295. You got 42. They got all these highways. A whole bunch of people would come by to visit. But I don't put the blame on nobody. I'm not that kind of guy. I'm very close with the good man above -- and I let things be what they're gonna be."

Don Steinberg, a winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America's award for best column in 2005, covers boxing for The Philadelphia Inquirer.