Jul 27, 2021

Heart of a Champion snags Best of Philly award

by: Natalie Pompillio

It makes perfect sense that Philadelphia magazine would choose Ernel Martinez’s Heart of a Champion: Tribute to Smokin’ Joe Frazier as the best mural of 2020. Frazier, the undisputed world heavy weight champion from 1970 to 1973, not only embraced his adopted home city of Philadelphia but he also came to embody it: Hard-working, determined, a man who cared about his community, a fighter in every sense of the word.

“He was Philly’s first underdog,” Martinez said.

That’s saying a lot in a city that prides itself on unexpected victories, including Martinez’s mural’s win.


Press conference for the unveiling of the Joe Frazier mural design by Ernel Martinez. Photo by Steve Weinik.

“It always feels good to be recognized for what you’re doing. I’ve been painting murals for 18 plus years in Philadelphia and I’ve had recognition in other ways, but coming out of a hard 2020, like everyone else did, it meant a lot,” Martinez said. “The mural was painted during COVID lockdown and was one of the first projects to have an in-person dedication when things started opening up last year.”

The 28 x 42-foot mural at 13th Street and Allegheny Avenue shows a young Frazier crouched in a classic boxer’s stance, on guard, ready to swing. His body is decorated with images taken from family photographs Circling the entire painting is a ring of international flags, a reference to the World Heavyweight Championship belt that Frazier once wore. Also highlighted is one of Frazier’s sayings, “There’s no right way to do wrong, no wrong way to do right.”


Artist Willis Nomo Humphrey, April 8, 2015. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Mural Arts plan to honor Frazier, who died in 2011 at age 67, was set in motion about four years ago with artist Willis “Nomo” Humphrey attached to the project. In 2018, Humphrey died of a heart attack at age 44. Martinez had once shared a studio with Humphrey and both were part owners of Amber Art and Design, a North Philadelphia collective of working artists. More importantly, the pair were close friends. Martinez submitted a mural design that encompassed Humphrey’s style into his own.

“This is really a shared honor, not just for myself but for Willis and his family,” Martinez said.

Joe Frazier mural paint day, July 27, 2019. Photo by C.J.Willis Photography.

Martinez worked closely with the Joe Frazier Foundation and Frazier’s family, learning more about the boxer’s life inside and outside of the ring and looking at informal family pictures, not posed professional shots. He incorporated these images into the mural.

“When you hear stories from the family, it just rings more true,” Martinez said. “All of the images came from his sister and the one that struck me the most was a group photo of him and his sons and his cousins. One of his sons came to the wall and said, ‘That’s me, that’ s my uncle’ and it just felt more real.”

Martinez also learned a lot from neighborhood residents who approached him during the mural’s installation.

“People are still alive and they still have stories to share,” he said. “People would come up to me and say, ‘I knew Joe Frazier. He would come by and walk with the kids along the train track’ or ‘When I was a kid, Joe used to train me in the gym.’ He was an icon in this community but not only as a world class boxer but as a man.”

Last updated: Jul 29, 2021

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