Droves of fans pay respects to Joe Frazier at the Wells Fargo Center
A silver hearse was parked in the underbelly of the Wells Fargo Center on Friday, having transported a coffin holding the body of Smokin' Joe Frazier, a boxing legend in Philadelphia and beyond. In the middle of the arena, Frazier would lie in state during an eight-hour public viewing for which long-time fans like John Mostiller III and Henry Wilson started arriving hours early.
"Joe Frazier was a wonderful human being. Down-to-earth. I loved the way he fought, his smile, how he kept things positive, making his gym a place kids could go to stay off the streets. He's Philly's own," Mostiller said while waiting outside in the bitter wind.
"He was a very encouraging brother, not like a lot of celebrities who don't give back. His spirit will live on," Wilson added.
What they, and hundreds of others who attended the first of three local memorial services for the former heavyweight champion of the world, would see inside was a simple display. No frills. Just like the man who'd requested a closed-casket viewing led his life. A white casket sat amid six unassuming floral arrangements, a Frazier vs. Ali sign, a pair of boxing gloves, his trademark hat and a picture of Frazier from his fighting days.
Still, it's not every day that viewings are held in professional sports arenas. For Frazier, though, all it took was his daughter Jackie Frazier-Lyde telling Mayor Michael Nutter that the family wanted him to "lay in state." Nutter then called Peter Luukko of Comcast-Spectacor who offered the space which conveniently wasn't hosting any sporting events on Friday or Saturday.
Throughout the day, a steady melting-pot stream of well-wishers paid their respects. The outpouring of respect brought a smile to the face of Jacob Chandler who was not only Frazier's friend from the South Carolina days, but is serving as his funeral director.
"It was his wish. He said [when he took ill with liver cancer] 'No one but Jake,'" said Chandler, who is abiding by Frazier's wish to keep his final resting place secret. "This has been hard. He was like a brother to me."
Some of those who attended Friday's memorial brought pictures of them posing with Frazier. Others brought books that he'd signed. Some sat in the stands talking about their favorite Frazier memories. Others, like Chuck Wepner, mourned a friend and peer against whom he threw, and got hit by, punches.
"There's a lot of sadness, one of the roughest days of my life, but it's a great tribute to a great man and champion to see what's happening here today," Wepner said. "I loved the guy, respected the guy. I'm sure that if I passed before Joe, Joe would be there for me."
Wepner, a boulder of a man who traveled from North Jersey with his wife Linda for the memorial, inspired the character Rocky Balboa, a statue of which is often cited as a slight against Frazier.
"It's unbelievable," said Wepner, who last saw an ailing Frazier within recent months. "It amazes me that there's a statue of Sylvester Stallone but not one for the great Joe Frazier. Joe loved Philadelphia. He always said that proudly."
That lack of a tribute to Frazier could soon change. After paying respects at the casket, Mayor Michael Nutter spoke of Frazier's legacy, starting from the time a 13-year-old Nutter listened to one of Frazier's three legendary fights against Muhammad Ali on a handheld radio at his house.
"Joe was always upbeat, an absolute pleasure to be around. Today isn't just sad. It's very, very sad," said Nutter, recounting how Frazier called him the day after he was elected to his first term four years ago.
Noting that the memorial service wasn't the time to "get into the particulars," he continued that "we're working with the family and when we're in the position to do so, I hope to announce a long-lasting memorial to Joe in Philadelphia."
Frazier will continue to lie in state at the Wells Fargo Center from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. Saturday. On Monday, there will be a viewing at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church – 2800 W. Cheltenham Ave. – at 9 a.m. with services to follow at 11 a.m. Among the expected guests are Ali, boxer Larry Holmes and Rev. Jesse Jackson.