Why Smokin’ Joe Frazier punched me for 20 minutes

Smokin' Joe Frazier in 1974
In 1974 I worked as an assistant to a photographer named Larry Kanevsky in Center City Philadelphia. His studio was a second story walk up on Sansom Street. Larry was a quirky, talented commercial photographer who I met through some connections we had in common at Philadelphia Magazine. Larry was as committed to commercial photography as he was to the Viola de Gamba, a beautiful ancient cello-like instrument that he played in a small ensemble. Working with Larry was my first opportunity to learn about strobe lighting, photographing inanimate objects and general commercial photography work from someone besides my grandfather. I cherished this opportunity and aspired to have a beard as cool as his.

Larry offered me a chance to help, watch and learn and in return, I offered him my unbridled enthusiasm for the craft of photography. At the time, I didn’t realize I was also signing up to be a punching bag for one of the great professional boxers of all time.

My photography business card
One crisp October day during my third year at The University of Pennsylvania, Larry informed me that we were going to be shooting an advertisement for Weightman Agency. Their client was a bank; GSB. (Germantown Savings Bank)- The Bank that works for you. The stars of the commercial were Bill Bergey, a huge husky linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles and boxing legend Smokin’ Joe Frazier. (no 'g' on smoking- he was that cool) Bill was 6 foot 8 and Joe was 5 foot 8. The print ads we were shooting were part of a campaign that included TV and radio. I can still hear the jingle in my head…

“GSB’s service really knocks me out.”

Bergey and Frazier 

Viola de Gamba Player
On the morning of the shoot, I got to the studio early to help set up. The lighting was a little tricky since Larry had to evenly light two people almost a foot apart in height. Larry was a perfectionist and that is a big reason his work was so good. He would practice his studio shots over and over just as he practiced the Viola de Gamba. It had to be perfect. There often wasn’t a second chance.  

Punching Bag
Larry also had a paid assistant named Phil working that chilly morning who helped him a few days per week. He stood in for Smokin' Joe and I stood on the mark on the floor representing Bill. Since I am not 6 foot 8, I stood on a step stool to simulate the height difference. The two of us posed for almost an hour as Larry worked out the lighting details.  He wanted the shot evenly lit but with some light from below to make these athletes look even more imposing.  At one point Larry said to the other intern Phil, “now Phil, pretend you are Joe Frazer and you are throwing a punch at Jeff. Just put your hand up to Jeff’s jaw and give it a tap”.  

With that, in comes Smokin’ Joe Frazer and an small entourage of about 11 gentlemen. In the studio was a legendary boxer who fought Muhammad Ali and dozens of elite boxers. Suddenly I hear Smokin’ Joe say...

“Phil, allow me”

Joe Frazer comes charging over to stand in the light and starts to punch me in the face.  I would be exaggerating if I called it a punch but it was a slight tap, tap, tap on my chin. Now this didn’t happen once and we all laughed at it. It happened for about 20 minutes as I stood under the strobe lighting while Joe Frazer threw that famous left jab at the right side of my chin.

What do I do? Ask him to stop? Tell him enough already? Cry?

Henry VIII
Joe was a pretty ferocious looking guy with arms the size of a leg of lamb suitable for Henry the VIII. He was small in height but he made up for it in fear in his eyes. It scared the bejesus out of me.

So there I stood trying to figure out what to do and how to get this world class boxer to stop punching me. Finally, after about 20 minutes, I ask Joe to describe to me his most thrilling moment in his professional boxing life.

That stopped the jabbing and started the jabbering. He began to tell me about fighting Ali and how he knew that he was going to pull that ‘rope a dope’ routine that was Ali signature move. Joe explained how his plan was to let Ali dance and dance and dance and eventually he would just land one of his awesome punches to shut him up. Watch a clip from the fight... Ali v. Frazier

The Thrilla in Manila

At some point the tapping on my face stopped.

Joe kept on talking for about 10 more minutes but I don’t remember any more of his story. My head was aching from the jabs to the jaw and I had a hard time concentrating. Getting Joe Frazier to talk was all it took to get his attention refocused on something else instead of my the right side of my face.

Smokin Joe V Muhammad Ali 

We took dozens of Polaroid photos of me standing there with Joe and for some strange reason, I can’ t find any of them. They may have all faded but the memory is as sharp as can be. 

What did I learn?

1. Don’t pick a fight with a professional prize fighter.

2. Ask a provocative questions when a professional boxer is punching you in the face.

3.  Stick to Hawaiian punch.

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