What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
I think we all know this has been a tough couple of days in the world of sports. I think we’ve all had enough scandal and death lately. I think we’ve all had enough lockout talk. But out of all the sorrow we’ve seen this past week, I deliberately waited for a few days to tell this story because I didn’t want it to get lost in the firestorm that broke out around the subject of my last post. But out of the sadness of losing one of the great heavyweight champs of all time comes the chance to share my own “Smokin’ Joe” tale.
Picture it…the desolate prairie of North Dakota in the late 1980’s. A college age J-Dub is working toward his matriculation, and takes a night off for some inebriation. The reason for the break from the books is this particular night was a special event. It wasn’t every night you could attend a full-on championship fight in a remote town of 50,000 people within sniffing distance of the Canadian border.
See, back in the 1980’s, North Dakota had a favorite son named Virgil Hill who won a boxing silver medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic games. After that, he went on to capture the WBA world light heavyweight title. Hill often would defend his title in front of the hometown North Dakota fans. Needless to say, a world championship bout in a town of 50,000, in an entire state with less than 700,000 people is a major event. Hill’s title defense against Tyrone Frazier was no exception.
That’s Tyrone Frazier, up-and-coming light heavyweight, and nephew of Smokin’ Joe himself. Naturally, being a boxing aficianado, not to mention a duty-bound uncle, Smokin’ Joe takes the wagon train into town and puts himself up in one of the local hotels. Perhaps it was his days in North Dakota where he picked up his affinity for cowboy hats. Or perhaps a cowboy hat is the hat of choice when you are drinking a horse trough full of bourbon…not Joe, me.
The fight was on a Saturday, and Joe came into town the day before. The hotel where Smokin’ Joe was staying had a bar which was a favorite of mine. Remember, I’m a college kid at this time and this bar had a full-on cheap appetizer buffet and 2-for-1 drinks, and nothing attracts broke-ass college kids like a cheap booze-up complete with chicken wings and a taco bar.
Now, me and my drinking buddy are busy downing round three and getting ready to answer the bell for the fourth when the bartender shows up with another set, courtesy of “that guy in the corner.” The room by this point to too dark (and my vision a bit too blurry) too make out the shadowy, albeit generous figure in the corner. So, we aim a thankful wave and tip of the glass in the general direction, happy to return to our imbibery.
However, during the remainder of the evening, this happens two more times. Nobody ever approaches us, and we aren’t exactly sure where in the darkened corner of the bar the complimentary drinks are coming from. So we repeat the “thankful wave/glass tip” move, and continue sailing to Cheap Drunk Island. Don’t forget, the only reason we are in this joint in the first place is for a cheap happy hour, and now an anonymous benefactor has extended our collective 45 bucks far closer to closing time then we had ever anticipated (don’t forget, 45 bucks sailed a lot farther 20-some years ago).
We managed to stretch out our cash to that magical part of any full night of bar duty; the part where the bartender says “last call, gents.” Except with us, he hands us two more drinks and motions to the aforementioned corner of mystery. At this point curiousity is slugging it out with free booze, and free booze is winning. But then we hit the other magical part of any full night of bar duty, the part where the lights come up and the bartender says ” you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”
As the lights are coming up, curiousity takes over; my drinking buddy and I are intently staring into the corner of that bar, wondering who was the patron saint of our drunkeness was.
If you’ve ever been in a bar at closing time, as the lights come up, there’s always that one guy in the corner who is waaaaaay more drunk than anybody else. Well, in this particular bar on this particular cold night in a prairie town in North Dakota, that guy was Smokin’ Joe.
Once the light knocked out the the dark, behind a table covered with plates full of chicken wing bones and empty glasses, not twenty feet away from us was the Champ himself. His tie is undone, there’s probably more wing sauce on his shirt than in his belly, and the drunk he’s on didn’t come from punches. But it’s still Smokin’ Joe, and he’s waving us over to his table.
Again, if you’ve pulled enough bar duty, you know there’s a special language spoken by drunks which is only understood by drunks; the only language on earth other than that African tribal clicking language which contains no consonants. It was kismet that at the moment Joe Frazier spoke that language to me, I was perfectly fluent.
“How are you boys doing tonight?” the Champ asked us.
“I’m a little drunk, your honor,” I slurred. “I’d like to thank you for the drinks, sir.”
“All the traveling I do, I love hotel bars. I always pick out guys to send drinks to because I hate being the last guy out of the bar, and when I spotted what looked like two broke-ass college guys taking advantage of this place’s cheap-ass happy hour, I knew I’d found my boys,” the Champ said.
With that he grabbed my hand with a handshake that to this day convinced me even in his wobbly, past-his-prime condition, even though I was larger than him in physical stature and in the peak of my prime; he still could have turned my lights out without even putting down the last chicken wing he was eating.
“Thank you, your honor. They didn’t go to waste.”
“I can tell. What-cha studyin’?”
“We’re both majoring in applied physics.”
“Shit, son, I don’t even know what means. I’m just gonna guess you are a couple of smart drunks.”
“I’d sure like to think so, your honor, said the Champ as he released my hand, gave my buddy the same handshake, and made his way toward the door. After all, he just told us he hates to me the last guy out of the bar. Smokin’ Joe left that honor to me and my drinking buddy.
To this day, I have no idea why I called the former world heavyweight champ “your honor;” my only defense is the aforementioned fluency in drunk-ese at the time. But what I will never forget – as I’m standing there in that hotel bar, awash in the “Holy shit, I just shook hands with Joe Frazier” moment – my buddy taps me on the shoulder and gives that moment a “can’t-be-saved-by-the-bell” 12th round knock-out.
“Who the hell was that guy?”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, deflated. “Even if I told you now, you still wouldn’t know tomorrow. Let’s go.”