Delen Parsley awoke at 5:30 this morning, and he just knew.
“Yo,” he said to his wife laying next to him. “Joe Frazier passed away.”
His wife refused to believe him. How could Delen know that? The two had slept through the night, with the TV off. So Delen reached over and turned it on. He was right. Joe Frazier, the heavyweight champion he grew up idolizing, was dead of liver cancer at the age of 67.
“He was a great fighter, man, he’s going to be missed,” Parsley says, sitting at a small table to the side of Gleason’s gym in DUMBO, where he trains fighters. Around here, the rotund, imposing Parsley is known simply as “Blimp.” He unwraps a sandwich, takes a bite, and surveys the room from his perch.
It’s 1 p.m., and light floods in through the second floor space’s factory windows. The air is thick with sweat. Grunts, the shuffle of shoes on the mat, and the sharp slap of gloves on punching bags reverberate off the deep red concrete walls. Plastered on these walls are pictures of former fighters who jumped rope on this floor, sparred in these rings, performed countless lifts using these ancient, rusty weights. A snack bar sits in an alcove opposite the entrance, selling 30-cent bananas and assorted sports drinks. A small television sits on top of the beverage refrigerator, playing an old HBO boxing broadcast on tape. The tracking is off, so the image occasionally flickers upward. To the side of the TV, a shelf is packed with countless VHS tapes. Each contains a different set of fights, some from as far back as Frazier’s heyday in the early 70s.
“Frazier was bobbin’ and weavin’, throwing his left hook and body shots. He tried to bend you over, wear you out,” Parsley says, smiling to reveal three gold teeth in his upper jaw. “He loved sweating, loved sitting in the eye of the storm.”
In 1971, Frazier encountered a storm of a different type. Muhammad Ali at Madison Square Garden. Billed as “The Fight of the Century” It was the kind of clash never before seen – two undefeated heavyweight champions, face-to-face. The bout lasted a punishing 15 rounds. As was his style, Frazier absorbed Ali’s punches in the early rounds, then countered as the cockiness subsided. Frazier knocked Ali down in the 15th round, retaining his world title. Then both fighters went to the hospital. Over the next four years, the two would fight twice more, with Ali winning both rematches.
“Those were the three best fights of all time, definitely” says Tony Baldwin, another one of Gleason’s trainers. He sits on a training table across from Parsley. “You have fights today where both guys can box, but they’re both fighting the same style. When you have Ali-Frazier in the ring, they’re completely different types of fighters. It was the perfect match, the perfect marriage.”
Or, as Parsley succinctly puts it, “Those were FIGHTS, man.”
A lot has changed since then. Gleason’s moved from The Bronx, to Manhattan, and then to its current location in DUMBO. Cable TV and Pay-Per-View took boxing off the airwaves. Promoters grew in influence. As a result, purses for winning fighters rose dramatically – Parsley says Frazier earned only $100,000-$200,000 per bout – both he and Ali earned $2.5 million for their first fight, chump change compared to the millions earned by top fighters today. Ali-Frazier I may well have been the Fight of the Century, but fact is it’s not that century anymore.
“Fighters in the heavyweight division today don’t take things as serious as Frazier did,” Baldwin says. “He was a picture perfect brawler. He brought it. The guys today aren’t bringing it.”
That and many other reasons, asserts Parsley, is why boxing is in decline. Fighters, in his view, don’t care. And the personality that endeared them so much to fans seems to be a thing of the past.
“Most fighters, their style mimics who they are,” he says. “Frazier lived a rough life, but he just stuck his nose to the ground and worked hard. I watched him fight and said ‘I want to work hard. I want to earn what I get.’ Fighters today don’t earn what they get.”
From across the room, Hector Roca overhears Parsley say this. A world-famous trainer, Roca has worked with countless actors and actresses, including Hillary Swank for the Oscar-winning boxing film “Million Dollar Baby.” He silently saunters over to the table, withdraws his iPhone, and displays the picture on the screen. It’s him, with his arm over Joe Frazier. The picture was taken nine months ago, after a commercial shoot in which Roca helped Frazier spar in this very gym. In the picture, both men smile from ear to ear.
“He was fun. A very happy guy. When he’s (boxing), he enjoys himself,” Roca says. “Everybody has to go. The sad thing is when you go and nobody knows your name.
“But everybody knows Joe Frazier.”