BEAUFORT, S.C. — Long before he became Smokin’ Joe, the future heavyweight champion was known in his South Carolina hometown as “Billy Boy” – a stocky farmer’s son who honed his devastating left hook on a punching bag made from a flour sack stuffed with corn cobs, rags and Spanish moss.
Joe Frazier would make Philadelphia his adopted home, but his roots ran deep in the sandy soil of the South Carolina coast where he was born in 1944. More than 250 family members and friends gathered Wednesday for a church memorial service near his hometown of Beaufort.
“He was Joe Frazier to the world, but he was our Uncle Billy,” said Dannette Frazier, one of about a dozen of Frazier’s nieces and nephews who still live near the 10-acre farm where the boxer was raised.
Frazier died Nov. 7 from cancer at age 67.
Absent from the service at Bethesda Christian Fellowship on St. Helena Island was Frazier’s body. In place of his casket, two large portraits of Frazier stood at the church altar – one of him wearing the Olympic gold medal he won in 1964; the other taken with his massive heavyweight champion belt slung over his shoulder.
After the church service, dozens more gathered for an outdoor memorial at a waterfront park overlooking the Beaufort River.
“I feel like, as the breeze is blowing, my father’s spirit is here,” Frazier’s daughter, Jacqui Frazier Lyde, of Philadelphia, said. “Because this is his home.”
Frazier made frequent trips back to South Carolina, where some family members still live along a road named after him in Beaufort.
Frazier spent his first 15 years in Beaufort on a farm where his parents grew corn, watermelon and okra. His mother would later recall Frazier started to fight around the age of 9.
Frazier’s father encouraged the brawling, and Frazier started training with whatever materials he had at hand. In 1959, at age 15, Frazier bought a ticket and boarded a bus to New York to begin training as a boxer in earnest.