PHILADELPHIA (AP) — They braved the November cold and the whipping winds to line up outside the Wells Fargo Center Friday morning in tribute to a legend. Old men in cowboy hats and canes, young men, fathers with children, and businessmen in suits standing alongside construction workers in mud-caked boots taking some time from their jobs to pay their respects.
Mourners began arriving around 9 a.m. for the public memorial viewing of former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier. The two-day affair, put together by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter in cooperation with Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider, is expected to draw 15,000 fans.
Frazier was laid out in the middle of the arena in a white, closed casket, as per his will, with his trademark black cowboy sitting atop and a white blanket that said, "Heavyweight Champion of the World, Smokin' Joe Frazier -- Your friend, Jake." To the left of the casket was an original fight poster of Frazier's first epic fight against Muhammad Ali on March 8, 1971, and an encased American flag. To the right was an autographed portrait of Frazier.
Friday's public memorial is to run through 5 p.m. Saturday's hours are 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
Private funeral services for Frazier will be held Monday at the Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, on 2800 West Cheltenham Ave., in Philadelphia. Ali is scheduled to arrive, as well as former heavyweight champions Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson. Welterweight world champion Floyd Mayweather is donating money to incur some of the costs of the services. George Foreman, another old Frazier nemesis, will not be able to make it, but has offered to help pay for some of the funeral expenses.
Almost every passing mourner, it seemed, had either met Frazier personally or had an indelible recollection of the Hall-of-Fame fighter. Some stopped to take pictures with the casket, with glistening gold handles and embroidery on the sides. Others took shots in front of Frazier's portrait, and still others took camera phone shots of the casket and the memorial blanket lying on top.
"I met Joe through my father, who trains fighters," Samantha Ramey said. "I was walking by him one time, he asked me to take a picture with him, and I turned and told him 'I should be the one asking to take a picture with you.' Joe had that smile, that championship smile. When I met him, he made me feel like I knew him his whole life. That's the kind of man he was. He strolled around with a cane and that cowboy hat."
Peter Lyde, Frazier's son-in-law, let out a laugh when he recalled the first time he thought about asking Frazier's daughter, Jacqui, out. Lyde knew the Frazier family through Frazier's nephew, Rodney. One time after a fight in New York City, the Fraziers convened in a hotel suite, Lyde recalled, when a photographer hugged Jacqui a little too tight for the former champ's taste.
"It's festive and everyone is having a great time, then all of a sudden you hear this booming voice say, 'Hey you, get your hands off my daughter,' and everyone stood still, because Joe was still imposing," Lyde recalled.
"Joe had that voice, the rare times he was mad, that could cut through a room. The man was a true modern gladiator. I'm 6-foot-9 and Joe scared me so bad I waited two years to ask Jacqui out before she became my wife."
South Philadelphian Joe Pultrone came to the memorial with his nine-old son, Santino. Pultrone knew Frazier through the music business and sometimes traveled with Frazier. He was fighting back strong emotions.
"What I'll remember most about Joe is how he treated everyone with mutual respect, it didn't matter who it was," Pultrone said. "I'd get these calls in the middle of the night with that raspy voice, 'Let's go road dog,' and the next thing you knew, I was with Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney at some clothing place getting fitted."
But it's the common fan that Frazier seemed to relate to the best. Buck Estel, a 54-year-old avid boxing supporter from Maple Shade, N.J., was decked out in Philadelphia Eagles gear. It was Estel's way of honoring the way Frazier personified Philadelphia, even though Smokin' Joe was born in Beaufort, S.C.
Estel was one of around 50 mourners who went up and sat in the Wells Fargo Center stands, looking down on the white casket for a few more minutes after paying their respects. He met Frazier for the first time a few years ago in an Atlantic City casino.
"After I met him, I had to go back to him three more times," Estel said. "Joe was just a real person. He took the time to talk to me and everyone around us. I remember going back to thank him for the time, and like a little kid, calling my wife later telling her I met Joe Frazier. This city needs to build a statue to him and put that in front of the art museum.
"The city should have embraced Joe a little more, but I'm happy they're doing this for him."