Mark Kram Jr, the son of the late Sports Illustrated writer who also penned the quite superb, and somewhat controversial, ‘Ghosts of Manila’ book in 2001, has a new book coming out, on heavyweight great Joe Frazier.
Kram Jr has big shoes to fill, writing-wise, and expectations are high ahead of the 2019 release of the Frazier biography.
Here, Mark speaks with ESB:
Q: The new Joe Frazier book of yours – ‘Smokin’ Joe: The Life of Joe Frazier’ – is out next summer in the US. How long have you been working on it?
Mark Kram Jr: “Since the spring of 2016. I was a sports writer for The Philadelphia Daily News from 1987 to 2015, and during that period I spent quite some time with Joe. I mean, it was not like dad, who knew Joe better than maybe anyone, and [Muhammad] Ali, but I got to know Joe pretty well. I did some long interviews with him, in 2009 in particular. But even though I didn’t perhaps know Joe as well as others did, like my father, I do know the people that populated Joe’s world, the people who really knew him best.
“And that’s the reason I wrote this book: because these people are still alive. Ten years from now, someone would probably have written a book about Joe and it wouldn’t have been the same – it would have been a case of so much would have been lost to history. It really was a case of, it’s time to write this book now, while the people who were a big part of Joe’s life are still with us. I’ve also tried to cover that time, that period. Joe had an amazing life, and a complicated life.”
Q: Are there any new revelations about Joe in your book?
M.K: “Oh, yeah. Put it this way – a friend of mine who also helped me with the book, he messaged me, telling me how he probably knew Joe better than anyone, and yet he even learned new things about Joe with the book. I do hope you’ll find it to be full of new material. And I hope the book does well over there in the UK; I know Joe had a big fan following in the UK and how he had a fondness for the people over there. The thing about Joe is, the way he was covered by the media, with him being a very personal guy, we never really got to know the real Joe. That’s another main reason I was compelled to release this bio on him. I hope this proves to be THE biography on Joe. There really hasn’t been too much written on him. Ali has of course had so many books written about him, too many really, and Joe does deserve far more coverage.”
Q: Did you spend any time with Ali at all?
M.K: “No, not really. I met him just once, at the Jimmy Young fight, in Landover, Maryland in 1976. It was actually before that fight. He had been sparring and Angelo [Dundee] introduced us, I was with my dad, and Ali looked at me and said, ‘are you another writer!’ I was working for my college paper then. It was after that I began covering sports as a writer. Believe me, I never had any obvious or natural ability. But I got into it and I found my way to the gyms. Any writer will tell you, it’s a rich environment. I covered Sugar Ray Leonard’s career then, his two fights with [Roberto] Duran, and I really loved Leonard back then. I wanted to carve out my own identity, away from my father – yet I wound up writing about Joe Frazier (laughs). I really hope I have taken a deeper look at Joe in the book. I was interested in Joe’s feelings about Ali. You know, over the years, I think Joe’s feelings about Ali waxed and waned. But I was really curious to know, did Joe’s feelings of anger, his feelings of fury towards Ali, continue with him to the grave? And there were other things that attributed to and added to Joe’s anger and fury to Ali; other things that were happening in his life at the time that added to that whole grudge. And I do think I was able to answer that question in the book.”
Q: What is your favourite Joe Frazier fight?
M.K: “Jeez! Obviously the first Ali fight is so hard to get away from. But as far as more obscure fights go, the Eddie Machen fight, because that was a fight that saw Joe grow and take shape as a fighter. The earlier fights, when Eddie Futch came in and shaped Joe, they are interesting. The two Jerry Quarry fights, the second one in particular was special for me. Dad was there to cover the fight and I was there, sat back and watching it, and it was really a thrilling event. You remember, Joe Louis was the referee in that fight.”
Q: The superb book your dad wrote, ‘Ghosts of Manila’ was a book that many liked but others were quite shocked by. There were critics of the book. It’s fair to say, Ali himself would not have really enjoyed reading it…
M.K: “Well, I have to disagree with you, and I know my dad would disagree with you. I know for a fact my dad had genuine affection for Ali and that he was friendly with him. The book was written out of affection for both Ali and for Joe. Ali was not a person to hold any grudge. The people around Ali, that’s different. But no, Ali would not have got anywhere near as worked up over that book as other people did. Ali and my dad, they really were very friendly.”
Q: Your new book – would Joe have liked what he was reading had he been here to do so?
M.K: “Er, I don’t know. That’s not something I’ve ever really thought about. It’s perhaps a more honest book than he would have liked. It’s a man’s life: the highs and the lows, some messy things, some regrettable things, and some great things. I hope the book covers Joe’s life, the culture that was there at the time and the history of those times. I hope this is a deeper look at Joe compared to dad’s ‘Ghosts of Manila’ book, which was never intended to be a biography of either Joe or Ali anyway. I hope this new book proves to be the deepest look at Joe Frazier and his amazing life.”