Pennsylvania Historic Preservation

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Smokin’ Joe Frazier and Pennsylvania’s Boxing History

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On February 5, 2013, the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Board gave their support to heavyweight boxer Joe Frazier’s Philadelphia gym for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. That’s one step closer to official recognition for not just the man but also the gym where he trained for most of his career and later shared his skill and experience with Philly’s youth.

Joe Frazier in front of his Gym and Training Center on North Broad Street, Philadelphia

Joe Frazier in front of his Gym and Training Center on North Broad Street, Philadelphia

Joe Frazier was born in South Carolina but moved to Philadelphia as a teenager. At 16, he got a job in a slaughterhouse and when he began training as a boxer he would punch hanging sides of beef—just one of the similarities suggesting Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa may have been based in part on Smokin’ Joe. Frazier won an Olympic Gold Medal in 1964 at age 20 and turned pro, becoming the World Heavyweight Champion on February 16, 1970. He is best-known for his long rivalry with Muhammad Ali, who he fought three times, including the “Fight of the Century” in 1971.

Frazier working a heavy punching bag in his gym

Frazier working a heavy punching bag in his gym

Frazier began boxing at local Police Athletic Leagues. Soon after boxing became a career for Frazier, his backers purchased a building on North Broad Street to serve as his gym. Originally named Cloverlay, this circa1895 building had previously been used as an industrial warehouse. From 1968 on, Frazier continued to use this gym as his base. When he retired in 1975, Frazier purchased the building and opened his own gym and training center. Frazier focused on training the next generation of boxers, including several who went on to become title winners, and gave his time to help make a difference in the lives of local youths.

By 2006 Frazier had converted the third floor of the building to an apartment and lived there until financial challenges forced him to sell the building in 2008. Frazier lost a short fight against cancer in 2011. The building is now a furniture store with a laminate business in the rear. Local individuals, the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation have been leading efforts to ensure that the building is protected in the future, and that Frazier’s Philadelphia legacy is recognized. The National Trust included the gym in its 2012 list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

A recent view of Joe Frazier’s Gym, located on North Broad Street, Philadelphia. The building now houses a furniture store.

A recent view of Joe Frazier’s Gym, located on North Broad Street, Philadelphia. The building now houses a furniture store.

The National Register nomination for Joe Frazier’s gym has been sent to the National Park Service for further review, and hopefully, approval for  listing later this spring. To find out more about efforts to protect Joe Frazier’s Gym, visit the Preservation Alliance’s website.

Pennsylvania has a strong connection to many prominent boxers of the later 20th century, in addition to Frazier. Easton’s Larry Holmes was a heavyweight champion in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Holmes grew up in Easton, and after retirement operated his own gym there until recently. Early in his career, Holmes was a sparring partner for Muhammad Ali at Ali’s training camp in Schuylkill County. Ali purchased this rural property to create an isolated training camp soon after his return to boxing in 1970. Here he trained for many of his fights from 1972 into the 1980s, including two of his three epic bouts with Joe Frazier. The camp is no longer owned by Ali, and has been for sale in recent years. Hopefully it will soon get the attention Frazier’s gym has received, with a plan to protect it for the future.

ExplorePA History’s website features a lesson plan devoted to making connections between Pennsylvania’s boxers and the theme “Living the American Dream.” The page includes links to Historic Markers for the “Philly Phantom,” light-heavyweight Tommy Loughran, and the legendary Blue Horizon boxing club.

Author: April Frantz

April Frantz is the National Register reviewer for the PA SHPO's Eastern Region.

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