Frazier and Spectrum arena a pair of Philly institutions


PHILADELPHIA -- The Spectrum arena in Philadelphia is squat and compact, a little brown oval with a hard brick surface around the outside and a gritty, groovy vibe inside its walls that tells you its glory days were in the 1970s. The arena today is resilient but often forgotten, situated across the parking lot from the glitzier Wachovia Center, where fans now go for big league sports action.

The Spectrum is just like Joe Frazier, and the two Philadelphia icons are forever linked. Exactly 40 years ago today, on Oct. 17, 1967, Frazier headlined the first boxing card ever held at the then brand-new Spectrum. He knocked out overmatched Tony Doyle from Utah in the second round and stayed undefeated at 18-0, the No. 1 heavyweight contender, bound for bigger things. That was the chaotic year in which Muhammad Ali refused military service and was banned from boxing, throwing the sport's heavyweight division into a bedlam it still hasn't completely escaped.

Frazier would become champion of the world in 1970 and beat Ali in 1971, but he would never escape the shadow of Ali. At home, he wouldn't even retain the title of Philadelphia's most popular boxer -- that role went to a movie character who never really existed, Rocky Balboa. Today there's a statue of Rocky in Philadelphia (it stood outside the Spectrum for years), but there's not one of Frazier.

Frazier arrived in Philadelphia in 1961, after leaving his birthplace of Beaufort, S.C., where his father was a poor sharecropper. Joe traveled north with a pounding left hook that he'd developed as a kid banging on a burlap sack he filled with a brick, rags, corncobs and moss and hung from a tree.

In Philly, he walked into a Police Athletic League gym as an overweight teenager -- short for a heavyweight at just under 6 feet -- and started punishing the competition. When he got himself a job at Cross Brothers, a kosher slaughterhouse, Frazier had to train around his work schedule. So he ran through the city early in the morning, sometimes up the Art Museum steps. He'd use beef in the refrigerated storage room as a makeshift punching bag. Frazier says Sylvester Stallone interviewed him and other Philly boxers before writing "Rocky," turning Frazier's methods into the most memorable scene in an Academy Award-winning movie.

"I'd like to take Stallone down and see if he can butcher a cow," Frazier says.

As an amateur, Frazier won three national Golden Gloves titles and a gold medal at the 1964 Olympics. When he came home from Tokyo with a broken thumb, unable to work, a group of Philly businessmen formed a syndicate called Cloverlay to back him -- and profit from his success. And Frazier kept knocking guys out as a pro.

He fought in Philly eight times before the Spectrum opened, mostly against tomato-can opponents, and built only a moderate following. Frazier wasn't a legend in those days, in a city brimming with world-class boxers like Bennie Briscoe and Gypsy Joe Harris. Still, he was the No. 1 contender by the time the Spectrum opened as a "$12 million sports and entertainment center." (One newspaper said it looked like a tuna fish can and ought to have "Chicken of the Sea" written on its side).

Today, four decades later, Frazier doesn't remember many details of his fight with Doyle. But he still has his cutting humor.

"He was tall. He was tough," Frazier recalled last week about the 6-foot-4 Doyle. "But not that tough."

Doyle reportedly had beaten Frazier in an AAU tournament years before. At the Spectrum, Frazier stormed across the "glistening new ring" and "left the Salt Lake City challenger in the same heap that had claimed 17 bodies before him," according to a report the next day by Tom Cushman in the Philadelphia Daily News. Early in Round 2, Frazier landed a left hook, and Doyle "came apart like a shattered mirror," Cushman wrote. Doyle got up from the first knockdown of his career, but Frazier swarmed and put him down again, and referee Zach Clatyon stopped it.

"I remember Doyle falling into Clayton's arms," says Philadelphia boxing promoter J. Russell Peltz, who was near ringside as a reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin and would go on to serve as the Spectrum's director of boxing in the 1970s.

After the fight, Frazier told reporters he'd heard that Doyle's wife just gave birth to twins. "I figured, let's get him home to see them," Frazier quipped. The papers wrote Frazier was guaranteed $15,000 for the fight.

In the next two nights, the Flyers and 76ers would make their Spectrum debuts. In early 1968, wind gusts blew part of the Spectrum's roof off while a crowd was waiting to watch the Ice Follies. Financial straits soon forced the arena's original owner to sell. It was a real Philadelphia story. The Spectrum would survive, though, and host great boxing in the 1970s, featuring fighters like Roberto Duran, Matthew Saad Muhammad and Marvin Hagler.

Frazier would peak in May 1971, when he beat Ali in their first meeting. He'd fight just once more in Philly after the Doyle bout, heading off to battle in places like Jamaica and Manila before retiring. Smokin' Joe still has a gym, and lives, in North Philly, a few miles from the fancy part of town.

Like Frazier, the Spectrum has been hard to knock down, even as other old-school arenas became history. In New York they tore down the old Madison Square Garden when the new one went up. Wrecking balls demolished historic Boston Garden after the TD Banknorth Garden (then the FleetCenter) opened to replace it. But the Spectrum is hanging in there, a monument to an earlier time, even as crowds fill the fancy Wachovia Center.

These days the Spectrum hosts minor league hockey and indoor soccer. And this Friday night, forty years after Frazier christened the boxing ring there with a win on his way to a championship, the Spectrum hosts another night of boxing, featuring local fighters, hoping to travel a similar road.

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