Q: They say, "May you live in interesting times." Were you aware that your audience included dictators and hippies, Sinatra and Norman Mailer?
A: It was all about the ring. That's where you got your brains shook and the money took. Everything outside was confused, upside-down and whatnot, and you media just made it more so. Nothing personal, brother. In the ring it was a good, clean fight. Very personal.
Q: You weren't a Philly party animal
A: A little Courvoisier. I fought like I had fun. Maybe Ali had more fun? I thought I was Evel Knievel for a while there too. Busted up a couple legs, arms, my face. Motorcycle ain't no more dangerous than a car, though.
Q: How do you handle the intensity of boxing—your heart pounding, all that adrenaline—and still keep a cool head?
A: Ahhh. That's the training. Learn how to handle that emotion. I was never, ever once angry in the ring. I didn't get mad when George beat me up. I didn't get mad when Ali was clowning on me.
Q: Did you have second thoughts about your kids' becoming boxers—like your son Marvis, who fought Holmes and Tyson, and your daughter, who fought Ali's daughter?
A: Their decision. Do what you gotta do. I just told 'em: Ain't nothing pleasant about it. Just keep your pants up—and you, keep your panties up.
Q: Where would you be right now if Ali hadn't been stripped of his title in 1967?
A: Joe Frazier's life didn't start with Ali. I was a Golden Gloves champ. Gold medal in Tokyo '64. Heavyweight champion of the world long before I fought Ali in the Garden. And I went down to D.C. to help Ali get his license back, man. President Nixon invited me up for tea: "Joe, if I do that, can you take him?" I said, "You dust him off, I'll beat him up." Nixon kept his word. So did I.
Q: So why did he come down to your gym and challenge you to fight in a park?
A: He's just a noisemaker, an empty wagon goin' down a road: Bumpity-bumpity-bump. Joe got my title. Joe's a Tom. Joe the white man's fighter. He's a pretty boy from Louisville. Light-bright and damn near white. I'm a sharecropper's son from Beaufort, South Carolina. Bumpity-bump.
Q: When did you start working in the fields?
A: Three years old? Right by my daddy's side, picking cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbages, watermelons. Wasn't really a field, more a garden—we didn't have but 5, 10 acres, 11 kids.
Q: And how old were you when you left?
A: Fifteen? New York City. I was "helping cars into the junkyard." Think they call it grand theft auto now? Then off to Philly when it was clear maybe it wasn't working out so well.
Q: You kept in shape by slugging carcasses in a freezer and running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Are you angry that Sylvester Stallone used that for Rocky and gave you only a cameo?
A: Nah. Stallone didn't steal my life from me. He just kinda got it wrong. I'm not just staying in shape slugging that meat. I'm keeping my southern blood warm in that freezer. Back home, I used to hit a bag full of rags and corncobs.
Q: Ali took from you too. Do you respect him?
A: Hell, yeah. And I feel sorry for him now, but I did what the Lord told me to do. Him going around all "I am The. I am The Greatest. I am The Prettiest. I am The Butterfly." Well, you can't be The—Thee is the Lord. Ali even told me in the ring, "You can't beat me—I'm your Lord." I just told him, "Lord, you're in the wrong place tonight."
Q: And when you look at him now, suffering from Parkinson's ...
A: Parkinson's? He got left-hook-itis, what he got. To this day, I don't know how this man stood up. All I hit him with, 44 rounds later? I was asking myself: What's holding this dude up? What medicine is he on?
Q: Thirty-five years later, whose punches can you still feel? Ali's? George Foreman's?
A: George's. I feel them every day.
Q: You don't seem to feel bitter about anything.
A: Bitter? Why? I'm blessed. I got the job done and I got paid. Stallone got his done. Ali got his done. So did George. Bless 'em all. So did Don King. Bless him too. People whine about Don King like that? He did his job and got us paid.
Q: If I gave you a time machine, would you go back to the 15th round in Manila when you didn't answer the bell?
A: I don't know. I never looked at it like that. I don't know. I'm not worried about it. I don't lose sleep over that. I'm not ashamed of it. I left that ring and I never looked back.
Q: Really? Ali's in his corner telling them to cut the gloves off, and he's said it's the closest he's ever been to death. Eddie Futch is saying you can't go back in, he's already seen eight men die in the ring. They give Ali the fight and he collapses on the mat.
A: He was out, man, lights out.
Q: And you wouldn't go back there and finish the job?
A: I don't know, man. I just don't know. It was 125 degrees in that ring, dude! Why the fuck would I go back there?
Q: What wisdom did you take from the ring?
A: Stick with the plan. That's you and the trainer. And train every day to make the plan come true. Stay close and when he misfires, Boom. [Imitating Howard Cosell] "Muhammad is down, Muhammad is down." See, the thing no one knew, 'cause I'd never get a license, was I've been pretty much blind in my left eye since '64. Had an accident with an old speed bag and pieces of metal flew into my eye. When my right eye swelled up in Manila, 14th round, and it looked like Ali's beating Joe Frazier up? I was a blind man. That's why Eddie Futch wouldn't let me come out in the 15th.
Q: That was the third fight. He beat you twice.
A: He never beat me.
Q: That's not what the history books say.
A: History books? Go back far enough, the earth's flat. That's what them books say.