Who says you can't go home again?
The world at large might think of former heavyweight champion "Smokin' " Joe Frazier as the quintessential Philadelphia fighter, the guy with the wrecking-ball left hook who went to hell and back three times with Muhammad Ali in the most celebrated rivalry in boxing history. But the Joe Frazier story didn't begin here in Philly, where he didn't arrive until he was a teenager with big dreams of someday punching his way out of poverty.
No, Joe Frazier's improbable path to fame and fortune began much earlier, as a child field laborer on farms in and around his birth city of Beaufort, S.C., where the youngest of Rubin and Dolly Frazier's 13 kids was instilled with values baked and hardened under an unforgiving Southern sun.
"Maybe 6 or 7 years old," Frazier, now 66, said of the age at which he entered the workforce. "I was Daddy's lefthand man. Daddy had lost his left hand, so I became his lefthand man. Probably that's why my left hook was so powerful.
"I picked cucumbers, tomatoes, squash. There are three or four kinds of squashes down there. I'd drive the tractor and stack the boxes. And when I'd get through working in the field in the daytime, I'd go to the packing houses at night to load the vans that were comin' up north."
So, what kind of financial compensation did Joe get for those rivers of sweat?
"Maybe $50 a week," he said. "That was big money at the time. But we made do. Daddy was also a junk man. He'd tear old cars down, then we would go to Savannah, Ga., and sell the scrap metal. I think we got 19 cents a pound."
Considering the humble circumstances of his origins, the honor Frazier received Sunday might be the most touching and unexpected of his life. Induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990? Well, wasn't that his just desserts for winning an Olympic gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and for the relentlessness in the ring that became his trademark as a pro?
But there Frazier was Sunday, back in Beaufort to accept the Palmetto Award, the highest distinction a South Carolinian can receive, from Gov. Mark Sanford. Smokin' Joe's lone surviving sibling, sister Maizie, could not attend because of advanced age and infirmity, but the audience was otherwise liberally sprinkled with relatives -- the fruit of his family tree, if you will -- who have benefited from the largesse of a man who never forgot who he is or where he came from.
"I don't forget nobody -- my brothers, my sisters, my mom, my dad, my uncles, my aunts," said Frazier, who was also feted later in the evening in Columbia, the state capital. "I was taught to love my family, to love my people and to treat them right."
He remembered so indelibly that, once the big money started rolling in from his championship reign, Frazier bought Dolly a plantation that sat on 365 acres, fulfilling a promise he had made that she could walk an acre a day for a full year if she so chose, on property that was hers, not someone else's.
"Considering the things I did and where I came from, something like (receiving the Palmetto Award) don't make no sense," said Frazier, who has lived in Philly since he was 15.
Neither does the fact that boxing's ultimate blue-collar hero has yet to be as officially embraced in Philly, his adopted hometown, whose slogan of a few years ago advised tourists and visitors that it is the place that "loves you back."
"The city of Philadelphia has done very little to honor Joe, as it's done very little to honor many accomplished people that have represented it so well," said Les Wolff, Frazier's business manager.
But that could be changing soon. Three local groups have expressed an interest in building a statue of Joe, whose incredible work ethic was further developed in a Philadelphia slaughterhouse as he prepped for the ring career that made him a legend.
Maybe Frazier deserves a statue as much for the cucumbers and the squashes and the sides of beef hung on meat hooks that are as much a part of his legacy as his trilogy with Ali.
"I was a worker," he recalled. "I was a guy who could get the job done. Nobody was going to give me a darn thing. I had to work for everything I ever got."
As one of the elite performers in the American amateur boxing establishment, North Philly light flyweight (114 pounds) Miguel Cartagena, 18, already has a well-stamped passport. He has been to Germany, England and Italy for various international competitions.
So, how many of the sights has he seen while abroad?
"None," said Cartagena, whose European tour has thus far been restricted to training camps and competition venues. "I was over there as a fighter, not a tourist."
Cartagena's global education continues Friday when he takes on a yet-undetermined Chinese opponent at Capitale in New York, part of a 13-bout card pitting the best this country has to offer against China's finest.
Another Philadelphian on the U.S. team is middleweight (165 pounds) Jesse Hart, son of the renowned 1970s middleweight knockout artist, Eugene "Cyclone" Hart, who will swap punches with China's Jianting Zhang.