North Philly resident Mike Abdullah, a committeeman for the 37th Ward and vice president of the 12th & Cambria Advisory Board, is devoted to making sure the legacy of Philadelphia's legendary boxer "Smokin'" Joe Frazier get its due. As part of that effort, he recently joined forces with Frazier's daughter, Weatta Frazier Collins, to work on petitions to rename the section of Glenwood Avenue that runs past Frazier's old gym "Joe Frazier Boulevard," which quickly attracted support from multiple groups.
On Wednesday, their dream came to fruition, but Abdullah wasn't there. He was watching the proceedings from his nearby apartment window, as he is recovering from a recent surgery and couldn't go in person. But seeing the diverse crowd of Philadelphians and elected officials gather to honor the late boxer and heavyweight champion of the world inspired him, he said on Wednesday.
"I saw it and said, 'Go on, Smokin' Joe, you did it today.' All these people came together and they made this happen. That's what America is all about," Abdullah, 63, said after Glenwood from Broad to 12th Street was renamed Joe Frazier Boulevard. "Joe can still bring us all together."
Philadelphia hero and Olympic boxing gold medalist Joe Frazier died in 2011 at age 67 from liver cancer. He won the Olympic heavyweight boxing gold medal for the United States in 1964 and held the title of world heavyweight boxing champ from 1970 to 1973. The city erected a statue of him in 2015 outside XFINITY Live! Philadelphia.
Politicians at the unveiling of the new street name, such as state Sen. Sharif Street, took the opportunity to call for restoring Joe Frazier's Gym. The gym at Broad and Glenwood was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013, but is currently under private ownership and leased to a furniture store.
"It should never have been sold. It is part of African-American history. We can't let something like that die and not be known," Abdullah said. "He got the gold medal, he honored Philadelphia, and the gym is a historical place that should have all his memorabilia inside it, showing all his different awards, as well as those of all those boxers he trained who were champions."
Abdullah said he hopes that community groups could come together to buy the 75,000-square-foot gym, and possibly convert it into both a museum and community center.
The fact that Philadelphia's most famous boxer remains the fictional Rocky Balboa continues to rankle many. Abdullah noted that some famous scenes in "Rocky," like Rocky running up the museum steps and practicing on sides of beef, were inspired by Frazier's experiences, but his only compensation was a walk-on cameo in the movie.
"I like 'Rocky,' but tell people that's based on Joe Frazier's life. You don't do stuff like that and hide a secret of who it's based upon," Abdullah said. "There goes a man with a third-grade education who succeeded in not only being a world champion, but a gold medal winner for America, and you don't think he deserves to be known as the real Rocky?"