The PR Lessons to be learned from Smokin’ Joe Frazier

Aa1f3_06I was saddened to read of the untimely passing of former heavyweight champion Smokin' Joe Frazier.
While I've always adored Frazier's uber nemesis, Muhammad Ali, I also respected Joe. But, while Joe was superbly matched with Ali in the ring, he was hopelessly outclassed by the Louisville Lip in the media world.

I believe there are several lessons every PR professional can learn from Smokin' Joe's mismanagement of the media:
1.) Create a positioning and three key message points and stick to them in each and every interview.
Ali constantly called himself The Greatest and said he was the “smartest, fastest and prettiest heavyweight champion of all time.” A top Edelman media trainer couldn't do better than that.
Joe, on the other hand, said he “…preferred to let his fists do the talking.”
Round one to Ali.
2.) Have a crisis plan in place. Ali constantly belittled Joe, calling him an Oreo cookie, gorilla and Uncle Tom among other things. Joe grimaced, but never responded in kind. Hence, the media and public tended to believe what The Greatest said.
Round two to Ali.
3.) Line up third party ambassadors. I was never quite sure if Howard Cosell made Muhammad Ali, or vice versa. In the final analysis, it doesn't matter because whenever Ali needed an erudite, verbose and outspoken supporter, Cosell had his back. Frazier, on the other hand, never developed a relationship with a reporter who could have advocated on Joe's behalf.
Round three to Ali.
4.) Make nice with the city fathers. Try touring Muhammad Ali's hometown of Louisville and not running into a reminder of The Greatest. Now, try doing the same thing in Joe's hometown of Philadelphia. There's no Joe Frazier Boulevard. No Joe Frazier Hall of Fame. Nothing. In fact, in what may be the ultimate insult, the only statue of a boxer in the City of Brotherly Love celebrates the fictitious Rocky Balboa.
Ali was a savvy marketer from the get go. As a result, Louisville is to Ali as Liverpool is to the Beatles. And, poor Joe is just another forgotten Philly boxer.
Round four to Ali.
4.) Take the high road. Most Americans don't know that Ali savaged Frazier outside the ring, calling him every negative name under the sun. As noted previously, Joe wouldn't (or didn't know how to) respond. But, when Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, Smokin' Joe had a huge image and reputation opportunity. If he had swallowed his pride and reached out to a very ill Ali to say that all was forgiven and forgotten, Joe quite possibly could have re-shaped his legacy. Instead, he stewed in silence and refused to say or do anything.
Fifth and final round to the winner and STILL heavyweight PR champion of all time: Muhammad Ali!
Post script: I actually met Joe Frazier about 15 years ago. His band, Smokin' Joe and the Kittens were playing some dump off the strip in Atlantic City. I spotted him before the show and went right up to introduce myself. He couldn't have been nicer and answered every one of my questions, including those about:
1.) Ali: 'He was maybe the fifth or sixth hardest puncher I ever fought. Chuvalo. Foreman. Bonavena. Those guys were the real punchers."

2.) March 8, 1971: (the night he beat Ali to become heavyweight champion):  “They've taken everything else away, but no one can take that away from me.”
3.) His fabled left hook: “I had a good hook, but this was much bigger and tougher than my hook,” said Joe, pointing to his heart.
If only Joe had shared pearls like that in his prime, things might have turned out differently. Instead, I remember Smokin' Joe Frazier as a great heavyweight in the ring and a true P.R. flyweight outside it.

16 thoughts on “The PR Lessons to be learned from Smokin’ Joe Frazier

  1. Joe Frazier for mine will always be the greater fighter. The man who plucked the Butterfly’s wings when both were, up to that first fight at Madison Square Gardens, undefeated Heavyweight Champions.
    Now that would make a great doco film.

  2. It would probably help if I remembered who some of these people were. Unfortunately, I draw a complete blank on Rich Guida and Cary Lemkowitz.
    However, I do remember Franznick’s nickname was “Frantic” because everything was urgent even when it wasn’t. Certainly her greatness wasn’t in JoPa’s league, and Mandell’s only self-confessed sin then was his temperment, hence the nickname “Dark Star.” I do remember H. Walters as a fun, good-natured guy so yes, I would agree with that.
    I will confess that sometimes I wake up in cold sweats remembering “The Shermanator.”

  3. An excellent film recommendation, PEngelinNYC. Thank you. I’ve seen it and agree it really captures Ali’s mastery of the media leading up to the ‘Rumble in the Jungle.’ When it came to complete mastery of the media, there was Ali. And, then, there was every other boxer.

  4. Thanks for the honesty and authenticity in your response, PEngelinNYC. I know Ed appreciates the tip of the hat. Staying on the EPB front if I may, would it be safe to say that Catherine Franznick was Rich Guida’s Ed Moed? Was Kitty Kat Franznick EPB’s version of Joe Paterno to Dave Mandell’s Jerry Sandusky? Also, what about Cary Lemkowitz being Harold Walters’s Ed? Does that ring true for you? Just curious to see your take on each of these relationships.

  5. Anyone fascinated by that last great era of heavyweight boxing really should see the terrific documentary “When We Were Kings.” It’s about Ali’s 1974 matchup with Foreman in Zaire.
    Ali is Ali, of course, but Foreman is unrecognizable — moody, brooding, unlikeable. Guess who the native crowd favors?
    It’s also worth seeing because Don King’s hair was only five inches high back then.

  6. “That’s a great case in point, Rep, Jr. Few, if any, people have equaled Foreman’s complete image and reputation turnaround. In Big George’s case, he credits ‘finding god’ with his transformation. Regardless of the source, Foreman’s gone from reviled to beloved.

  7. Smokin’ Joe should have taken a hint from George Foreman, who originally was a bad guy in the media’s opinion, but then did a complete 180 and transformed himself into the lovable grill salesman we know today.

    Repman Jr.

  8. Now, that’s what I’d call obscure, PEngelinNYC. So, Telly Savalas was to Howard Cosell as Edward Aloysius Moed was to Peter Engel?

  9. Here’s a piece of little-known trivia. Does anyone know the name of one of the young ABC Radio executives who gave know-it-all lawyer Howard Cohen a shot at radio sportscasting in the mid-1950s? His name was Telly Savalas. Later on, he became an actor. You may remember him.
    So yes, you can blame Kojak for giving us Cosell.

  10. I don’t know how much Cosell was “telling it like it is” when he changed his last name from Cohen to Cosell. Makes one wonder.

  11. I always got a huge kick out of Howard Cosell, PEngelinNYC. Compare Cosell’s vocabulary with one of the morons who cover sports nowadays. Howard was the best. And, as he would say, “That’s telling it like it is.”

  12. I just heard an old NPR interview with Smokin’ Joe. He seemed to have accepted his place in history with good humor, even if he never made a public campaign of it. Back in the day though, I’m sure Frazier wanted to use those piston-sized fists on Cosell more than a few times. After all, who didn’t?

  13. Appreciate the kind words, Book. I was always in awe of Ali’s way with words and poor Joe’s unease with them. Joe was Ali’s perfect foil. Tough way to be remembered.

  14. Hated boxing, but loved the repertoire of Ali/Cosell, and do recall the Thrilla in Manila. That being said, this is one of your best posts. It never ceases to amaze me that things like this are a PR and/or marketing opportunity. Probably why I am in the law business. All cut and dried with no room for gray area. Thanks Rep.