Joe Frazier remembered at home

Updated: November 16, 2011, 4:59 PM ET
Associated Press

BEAUFORT, S.C. -- Long before he became Smokin' Joe, the future heavyweight champion was known in his South Carolina hometown as "Billy Boy" -- a stocky farmer's son who honed his devastating left hook on a punching bag made from a flour sack stuffed with corn cobs, rags and Spanish moss.

Joe Frazier would make Philadelphia his adopted home, but his roots ran deep in the sandy soil of the South Carolina coast where he was born in 1944. More than 250 family members and friends gathered Wednesday for a church memorial service near his hometown of Beaufort.

"He was Joe Frazier to the world, but he was our Uncle Billy," said Dannette Frazier, one of about a dozen of Frazier's nieces and nephews who still live near the 10-acre farm where the boxer was raised.

Frazier died Nov. 7 from cancer at age 67.

[+] EnlargeJoe Frazier
AP Photo/Stephen MortonJoe Frazier's daughter Jacqui Frazier Lyde, left, and his niece Dannette Frazier shared memories during a service held near his hometown of Beaufort, S.C.

The South Carolina service had none of the celebrity trappings of Frazier's funeral Monday in Philadelphia, where Rev. Jesse Jackson delivered the eulogy to a congregation that included Muhammad Ali, former heavyweight champ Larry Holmes and promoter Don King.

Also absent from the service at Bethesda Christian Fellowship on St. Helena Island was Frazier's body. In place of his casket, two large portraits of Frazier stood at the church altar -- one of him wearing the Olympic gold medal he won in 1964; the other taken with his massive heavyweight champion belt slung over his shoulder.

"I was really hoping to bring my father with me today," Frazier's oldest daughter, Jacqui Frazier Lyde, of Philadelphia, told the congregation. "I was really trying to make sure you had an opportunity to see his face."

Lyde said her father was being buried in a blue suit and patent leather shoes. "He looked like one of God's men."

Billy Joe Frazier spent his first 15 years in Beaufort on a farm where his parents grew corn, watermelon and okra. Frazier's father was proud that he was not a sharecropper. He owned his land.

By age 6, Frazier was in the fields helping his brothers and sisters pick tomatoes and other crops. He began driving his father's pickup truck when he was 7. His mother would later recall Frazier started to fight around the age of 9.

Frazier's father encouraged the brawling, saying he could grow up to be the next Joe Louis, and Frazier started training with whatever materials he had at hand. The fighter later said he gave daily beatings to his homemade punching bag for several years.

Frazier was expelled from school in the ninth grade when he fought a white student for calling his mother names. He got a job working construction that helped him build his body and earn enough money to leave the South. In 1959, at age 15, Frazier bought a ticket and boarded a bus to New York to begin training as a boxer in earnest.

"I left the South as soon as I found out about the North," Frazier later told a biographer.

But he made frequent trips back to South Carolina, where there's a road named after him in his hometown.

"When he came home we knew he never forgot Beaufort," said Dannette Frazier, his niece. "He'd spend three or four days here because he had to visit everybody."

At the church service, she recalled how her Uncle Billy rushed home to Beaufort a couple of years ago when her mother, one of the boxer's older sisters, died.

She laughed at the memory of how Frazier drove the 700 miles from Philly to Beaufort, even though "he was legally blind."

Frazier arrived safely nonetheless.

"He said, 'It was easy. I just looked at the tail lights in front of me,' " Dannette Frazier said. "That's the loving uncle we knew."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press