As his legions of fans worldwide mourned the death of former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier last week, one item that didn’t get a lot of press notice was how Frazier—son of a heavily Democratic Philadelphia and an African-American–befriended and proudly campaigned for two Republican politicians.
In 1980, as Jimmy Carter and the Democrats were stroking fears among black voters about Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party, the GOP nominee appeared with Frazier and fellow former heavyweight champions Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali. Frazier and Ali were arch-rivals whose bouts for the title in the early ‘70’s became legend. But one thing they agreed on was that Reagan should be President and they made that clear.
Four years later, Ali, Patterson, and Frazier again came together to support the re-election of President Reagan.
At home, Frazier was a vigorous backer of a politician even more controversial in the black community: Frank Rizzo, known as “America’s toughest cop” while police commissioner of Philadelphia from 1966-71, and was mayor of the city from 1971-79.
“Goodness, I practically grew up around ‘the Champ,’ because he and Dad were such good friends,” Philadelphia City Councilman Frank Rizzo, Jr. told HUMAN EVENTS.
Rising through the Philadelphia Police Department, Rizzo came under fire from civil rights leaders for his no-nonsense handling of city crime in the ‘60’s and his dealings with the Black Panthers. Rizzo himself reeled when critics called him “racist,” noting that he had experienced discrimination himself as an Italian-American and that he had helped advance blacks within the police force.
Frazier had known Rizzo since before he was commissioner. As Frank Rizzo, Jr. recalled, “When Dad ran his first campaign for mayor as a Democrat back in 1971, he had an event scheduled at a restaurant called ‘The Shack.’ Joe was at the height of his game and was at some function in New York the same day. But he told his people to “make sure I make it back so I can be with my friend Commissioner Rizzo.”
Rizzo stepped down as mayor in 1979 later became a Republican, and in 1987, he won the Republican primary for mayor. As Philadelphia attorney and longtime Rizzo advisor James Baumbach told us, “when Frank won the primary, we had a rally in his old neighborhood in South Philly. There was a flatbed truck, a Mummers band, and a big crowd. Not on stage but out in the crowd was Joe Frazier and when a Channel Six reporter asked him why he was there, he said: ‘I’m here for my friend Frank Rizzo because the streets are so dangerous, even I’m scared.’”
Baumbach asked Frazier to say the same thing for a Rizzo commercial. In November, Rizzo narrowly lost to Democrat Wilson Goode, the city’s first African-American mayor.
Four years later, Rizzo scored a dramatic upset and won the Republican primary for mayor. He was particularly happy that many black leaders, deeply worried about crime, had forgiven past disagreements and were lining up for him. On July 16, 1991, the day before he was to receive the endorsement of key black clergymen, Rizzo had a heart attack and was rushed to Jefferson Hospital. Joining his wife Carmela before Rizzo’s death were their two children, and what Rizzo biographer Sal Paolantonio called “the whole Rizzocrat family”—including Joe Frazier.
“My mother celebrated her 95th birthday last week,” Frank Rizzo, Jr. recalled, “It was a great occasion but it was bittersweet for her. She learned that the champ had died.”