Days after the Philadelphia Flyers cut ties with Kate Smith, covering her statue and burying her rendition of “God Bless America” at the Wells Fargo Center, Derek Dennis Frazier is basking in the successful efforts to erect a statue of his father outside Xfinity Live! nearby. The entertainment complex is on the hallowed ground once occupied by the Spectrum, where Joe Frazier headlined the venue’s first boxing event in 1967.
The world champion sent Derek, his youngest son, to Valley Forge Military Academy & College in eighth grade. He wanted to help protect his child and prepare him for the world—not knowing, though maybe sensing, that he himself wouldn’t be long for it. Derek is now the academy admissions director for his alma mater. The photos on his desk include one of his father with influential Philadelphia trainer Yancey “Yank” Durham.
Frazier died on Nov. 7, 2011, after a battle with liver cancer. He was 67. Raised in North Philadelphia, Derek was kept at a distance from his father in his final weeks. He never said goodbye. Now, he longs to be the role model for the sort of young man Joe Frazier once was—even if it’s simply to pass on the message that you can forgive but you should never forget.
Joe Frazier fathered 11 children with six women. Derek’s mom was Sherri Gibson, who met the fighter when she found some keys he’d lost. His father married only Florence Frazier, the mother of his first five children. She turns 77 this month, and the family guards her health.
Photos courtesy of Derek Frazier.
Like Derek, Joe was the youngest child, raised on the Beaufort, S.C., farm of Dolly and Rubin Dennis Frazier with 12 other siblings. At 20, he won a gold medal in the 1964 Olympic Games. He became the world heavyweight champion six years later with a fourth-round TKO of Jimmy Ellis at Madison Square Garden. Frazier went 32-4-1 as a pro, with 27 knockouts. On March 8, 1971, his left hook in the 15th round floored Muhammad Ali in the first of three epic bouts. It was dubbed the “Fight of the Century.”
Derek’s only public foray into boxing was an exhibition bout for the 2013 MTV reality show Made. He lost 50 pounds for the fight, training in his father’s North Philadelphia gym. “I’m a Frazier,” he said at the time. “I wanted to see if I could do it.”
At 27, Derek is the youngest sibling by a decade. Two of his six brothers have died this decade. Brandon, the next youngest, suffered a stroke two years ago. Hector—who spent his life in the ring and in prison—passed away five years ago. “Dad didn’t want me near him,” Derek says of Hector. “He wasn’t a good example.”
Derek’s pre-academy schooling was at St. Francis Xavier in Philadelphia, and he blames his father’s chauffer for making him late “every damn day.”
“My father was Joe Frazier, and everyone wanted to shake his hand, or stop and get his picture,” says Derek.
When Derek was in second grade, his father sat him down to review some of his fights—in particular, the Ali trilogy. “They were a big deal, and he broke it all down for me, including the beef (between the two fighters),” he recalls.
While Derek’s various other siblings grew up with Joe Frazier the Boxer, he was essentially the only child of Joe Frazier the Father. “As he got older, he didn’t focus on training or making money,” says Derek. “He took the time to give out wisdom—not just to me, but to everyone. How to hold yourself, be respectful, deal with people and be humble. I knew we had money, but we still lived in the hood, which he helped me understand. He let me make my own decisions but told me to understand consequences. He also wanted me to understand values, which is why he said, ‘I’m sending your ass to Valley Forge.’”
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A difficult decade came to a head for Valley Forge Military Academy & College this past spring—one marked by enrollment declines, financial losses, layoffs, administrative turnover, rumors of cadet hazing and sexual assault among students, and a complaint filed by the school’s former Title IX compliance officer. President Walter T. Lord, a retired Army major general and prominent alum, resigned less than a year after assuming the savior’s role at the last recognized military academy that remains in Pennsylvania. Lord became the third president in four years to depart, initiating a suit filed in U.S. District Court that seeks to return stability to the school amid failing leadership by its board of trustees.
Then there were the six assaults reported on campus in one weekend—at least one the result of a misunderstanding related to underage drinking. There was also a lawsuit filed by a former student, who alleged that school officials were grossly negligent in handling and reporting student abuse that’s been “severe and pervasive” and “rampant for years.” The suit claims that administrators were more interested in protecting the school’s public reputation.
“There’s so much good in the place, and it can’t be overshadowed by the negative,” says Frazier, who began working there full-time in 2016 before his promotion last October. “Some say the school is going down, but that’s not the case at all. I know Valley Forge is a good place for kids. I know we’re helping them. Are we perfect? No. But we’re a better option.”
Many of Derek’s most enduring memories of his father involve Valley Forge. “He was always there visiting,” Derek says. “The school made him happy. He loved the campus and the people—and the fact that there was also someone else there to give me life lessons and to be on my back. He and my mom sent me there because they knew I needed more.”
Before Derek graduated, his father spoke on campus on the subject of character development. Until then, plenty of people in the audience had no idea about Derek’s celebrity. “I wouldn’t say I kept it private,” he says. “If they knew, they knew. If they didn’t, they didn’t.”
That’s how it plays out today, too. Col. Stuart Helgeson says Frazier gets embarrassed when anyone brings up his dad. “A lot of parents find out after the fact, so he doesn’t lead with that at all,” says VFMAC’s superintendent and chief operating officer, who oversees admissions.
Still, it’s a good talking point if it comes up. “I tell them, sadly, he’s not here, but I am—and I wouldn’t be here as an alum if I didn’t think the school was good for a kid,” says Derek.
Helgeson, a 30-year Marine veteran, could’ve gone off campus for the admissions position, but he tapped Frazier instead. “He didn’t have a long-tenured track record, but I saw results in the year and a half of working with him,” he says. “Derek is very personable, which plays really well with parents, and he’s good at identifying and overcoming objections. Now he’s taking the next step as a leader.”
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In his final call to his youngest son, Joe Frazier suggested he might have food poisoning. After that, his father’s phone blocked Derek’s calls. By Halloween weekend 2011, Derek knew his dad had been hospitalized, though he had no idea where. He “went on hunts” with friends to seven different Philadelphia hospitals without luck, finally learning that his father died when a sister called him on his way back to college. “It’s sad how it went down,” he says now. “I thought my father was invincible, even though I had the older version. I sat at the funeral, and it was like a blur. They got a kick out of knowing that I didn’t get my last moments with him. If he had something to tell me, or give me, they all know my father would’ve given me everything—his chain, his ring.”
Acknowledging the differences of opinion among his siblings, Derek says he’s still trying to figure out how his father died. “To this day, no one has given me the paper that shows what my parent died of,” he says.
Frazier’s death further divided the family. There was even some drama surrounding plans to bring the Hall of Famer boxer’s body home to Beaufort for final burial. Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, a former pro boxer who’s now a municipal judge in Philadelphia, wanted him there—though she didn’t return calls for this story. “All of us are here, and we wanted him as close as possible, so I didn’t think my sister would win that one,” Derek says.
She didn’t. Frazier is buried in Philadelphia’s Ivy Hill Cemetery. “We all have a little fight in us, but we get it from him,” says Derek. “It’s a chemical—a fighting mentality.”
Joe Frazier with Derek at his 50th birthday party. Photo courtesy of Derek Frazier.
Much of Derek’s ire is aimed at his father’s business manager, Les Wolff—and other Frazier family members have criticized him, too. “Nothing that comes out of [Derek’s] mouth is true,” Wolff has told other media outlets, maintaining that Joe kept a tight inner circle. “He’s a proud man,” he told longtime Philadelphia Daily News boxing writer Bernard Fernandez.
“Les is the most conniving person I’ve ever known,” Derek says. “No one has ever had anything good to say about that man. My dad had a big heart, so he never thought anyone would mess him over.”
Weatta Frazier Collins is co-executor of her father’s estate. “If you see a snake on the ground, you need to make sure you get past it,” she says. “I’m not calling [Wolff] that because I like to respect people. I respect him. What I like to say about Mr. Les is this: Keep him on the other side of the town where I am.”
Weatta describes her brother as unusual, creative and loving. “Derek is Derek,” she says. “It’s a shame our father is not here to see what he’s become.”
But she also confides that his personality back then—and that of his mother—was “not proper,” so a family decision was made to exclude them. “It was a spirit that was not healthy to have around someone who’s sick,” says Weatta. “If he was to come there, he would’ve been irate. We were all kept in the dark to various degrees, and there were other siblings who didn’t get to say goodbye.”
Among them was the oldest son, Marvis, who turns 59 in September. He was at the hospital, but he took a train home to Washington, D.C., perhaps to avoid the inevitable. “He said he had to go back to get more clothes. I said, ‘Wear Daddy’s,’” recalls Weatta. “I had to call and say, ‘Daddy‘s gone to be with the Lord in heaven.’”
For Derek, the funeral was incredibility awkward at best. “Now that I’m older, I forgive them, but I don’t forget what happened,” he says. “I can’t hold a grudge, but I can use it to tell my story and grow from it. I have to be a gentleman and compromise, forgive and move forward.”
The estate was settled in 2015—and about all the children could agree on was the sharing of equal rights to their father’s legacy, likeness and image in future projects. This is an important consideration for Derek, since his educational background is in TV, radio and film, graduating with a degree from Cabrini College.
Now 55, working full time in the insurance industry and living with husband Gary Collins in Maple Glen, Weatta honors her father’s humanitarianism and reputation as an underdog and opportunist with The Legacy Exists, which provides scholarships to at-risk youth ages 13-19. So far, the organization has awarded 41 scholarships in the five-county area. “I met a young man who lived in North Philadelphia who couldn’t tell me who Joe Frazier was,” she says of the inspiration. “But he could tell me who Ali and Mike Tyson were. To me, that was a little off—and it had to be corrected.”
Joe Frazier often fought for respect as one of the city’s sports greats—something his son has never quite understood. “Maybe it’s how he marketed himself, not to be put on pedestal,” Derek surmises. “Dad always figured that all he needed was himself and he was good to go, so he didn’t market himself like Ali. He was also not a talker.”
Still, the tributes have come. The Mark Kram Jr. biography Smokin’ Joe: The Life of Joe Fazier was just released, and there are plans for the Boxers’ Trail in Fairmount Park—a path many in the sport were known to train on. “If it had been named the Joe Frazier Trail, Daddy wouldn’t have been happy,” says Weatta.
There’s also a mural in the works that will find its resting place in Strawberry Mansion near the Dell Music Center, and about a year ago, Greenwood Avenue in North Philadelphia was renamed Smokin’ Joe Boulevard.
In the more immediate wake of his passing, preservationists obtained historic status for Frazier’s former gym (now a furniture store), a move that helps safeguard it. “If I hit the lottery, I’d get the gym back,” says Derek. “I know he’d like that.”
Though his remains were initially kept in an unmarked mausoleum, Frazier was ultimately put to rest in an elaborate crypt mostly funded by boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. The tomb features a picture of Frazier draped in his Olympic gold medal and wearing his heavyweight championship belt. Derek helped unveil it.
Joe Frazier’s statue debuted outside Xfinity Live! on Sept. 12, 2015. Derek has plans for his own documentary and maybe even a full-length film. On his right bicep, a tattoo depicts boxing gloves and the Frazier name. He plans to upgrade with a portrait of his father that would extend around to his back. “I do remember where I came from and who I am,” he says. “I’m proud to be a Frazier.”