BEAUFORT, S.C. -- Heavyweight boxing legend Joe Frazier received the Order of the Palmetto award from Governor Mark Sanford at the Beaufort waterfront Sept. 27.
Recognized as the highest civilian honor that can be presented by the governor of South Carolina, the award is bestowed upon those who have made significant statewide contributions over their lifetimes. The ceremony was a homecoming for Frazier, who was born and raised in Beaufort County.
“The life that Joe has lived is a model to every one of us,” Sanford said, before presenting the award. As an Olympic gold medalist, and former world heavyweight boxing champion, Frazier deserved the recognition partly because of his successful career and the prestige he lent to the region and to South Carolina, Sanford said.
“You have about 6 billion people on planet earth, and to end up the top of any category is a remarkable accomplishment in and of itself,” Sanford said. “It really does bring credit to people of the state, and people of the Lowcountry, to the people of Beaufort County and the people of Burton.”
Training and fighting inspired every aspect of Frazier’s life before, during and after his career. Whenever he would visit Beaufort, he said he stayed at a plantation where he would work out day and night.
“I could come down for as long as I wanted to, and I would train myself and stay conditioned,” Frazier said. “That was what I missed most about Beaufort when I wasn’t here.”
Sanford said Frazier’s unique determination was an equally important, though less tangible, grounds on which he deserved the honor. “He has taught all of us about persistence and about perseverance,” Sanford explained, telling the audience about the time Frazier continued to fight and win despite a broken thumb that rendered his left hand useless for offense in the ’64 Olympics.
“It is particularly inspirational to take somebody that grew up on a little ten-acre farm, whose dad was a sharecropper, and who grew up with 12 other siblings, to become the top of the world in your category,” Sanford added.
“It is an inspiration to every kid out there to say ‘God has a mission for me,” Sanford said. “For him it was boxing, for somebody else it might be something else, but to really work on that, to really become excellent at that, to persevere, is part of what we’re celebrating here today.”
On the day of the ceremony, the Lowcountry welcomed the returning hero with the first steady rain the area had seen in many days, but it seemed no matter to Frazier who remarked at his nostalgia for the town of his youth. He believes his humble beginnings served to strengthen, rather than hinder him.
“It gives me every pleasure to be a part of Beaufort, South Carolina, because I’ve come up the hard way. I came up the right way,” Frazier said.
He recalled his experiences performing the labors of farm work during the 16 years he lived here. Frazier believes it was those sorts of Beaufort experiences that made a man of him.
He likewise helped to put Beaufort on the map, said former heavyweight champ Larry Holmes during the ceremony.
“Who ever heard of Beaufort?” Holmes asked the crowd. “If there wasn’t no Joe, wouldn’t be no Beaufort,” he jested to the laughing crowd.
Of course, many of the speakers made reference to the famously bitter rivalry between Frazier and Mohamed Ali, two fighters forever tangled together in annals of sports, politics and black history. Sanford said the generosity of Frazier’s character could be seen even through the hostility of their opposition.
“The bible talks about how we are to love our enemy,” Sanford said. “You and Ali didn’t seem to be the best of friends - at least not in that setting. But I think what is really instructive is when Ali was disbarred from fighting based on Vietnam…Joe himself had dinner with the president of the United States, Nixon, at that time, to argue for Ali’s reinstatement into boxing.
“That notion of extending an olive branch, in this case pushing for a person who was a mighty opponent, says everything about that larger theme of great humility, all of which we can model,” Sanford said.
Frazier smiled genially for the duration of his living eulogy, and, in his turn, he first thanked his relatives for attending the affair.
“I know a lot of fine people who are here. My sister in law, nephew, nieces - they’re here [for me], and that’s why I became a champion,” Frazier said to hearty applause. “I know that the people of Beaufort, South Carolina have a pride in me, and they’ve stood behind me. And sometimes they stood in front of me," said Frazier, who is reputed to have been in a few scraps locally before becoming a professional boxer.
Frazier said that no matter where his career took him, he always remembered the people of South Carolina. Now, presented with one of the state’s highest honors to hang in his Philadelphia boxing gym, “Smokin” Joe Frazier can be assured the people of South Carolina remember him as well.