Fight of the century revisited
This week marks the anniversary of one of the greatest sports events in history.
On March 8, 1971, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier engaged in what became known as “The Fight of the Century.” It was the first of three epic battles between the two contrasting boxers that captured the imagination of people across the world.
For Frazier it was a chance to validate his title as boxing’s World Heavyweight Champion. For Ali it was yet another platform to lay claim to being “The Greatest.” For each man, it was a golden opportunity to evenly divide $5 million ($2.5 million per man, a huge amount of money in 1971). For the public at the time, it was a fight that transcended sports.
The anticipation of this matchup built for about three years and was spurred by a move Ali made in support of his personal beliefs.
In the spring of 1967, Ali refused to be inducted into the United States Army, on the grounds that the United States involvement in the Vietnam War was in conflict with his religious beliefs as a member of the Nation of Islam. Ali was charged with draft evasion, and the World Boxing Council (WBC) stripped him of his heavyweight championship.
The vacated title was given to Jimmy Ellis.
Meanwhile, the New York Athletic Commission held a series of elimination boxing matches in Madison Square Garden (MSG) to determine its heavyweight champion. Frazier emerged as the winner, knocking out Buster Mathis in 1968. In February 1970 at Madison Square Garden, Frazier scored a knockout over Ellis. So Frazier, on paper, became heavyweight champion of the world.
Many people in and out of boxing, however, still viewed Ali as the champion, even with his imposed exile. Additionally, people were becoming increasingly opposed to the war in Vietnam.
Although forced from boxing, stripped of his passport, and dealing with his case in court to determine whether or not he would go to prison, Ali remained at the forefront of the public eye. A charismatic, outgoing personality, he appeared on television and radio talk shows and was a frequent guest speaker on the college lecture tour. Because of this and his strongly voiced opposition to racism against Blacks in America, Ali became a figure the Civil Rights movement, Black nationalists, and the Anti-War movement (which included the “Hippies”) could rally around.
“The exile showed people that Ali was sincere,” said the late boxing historian Jim Jacobs. “It made him an underdog. He became a symbol to people who had never been interested in boxing before. And by traveling around the country speaking on college campuses, Ali was able to bring his message to tens of thousands of young men and women . In a way, it was like a presidential candidate sowing the seeds for future caucuses and primaries. And of course, people began to feel that, whether or not they liked Ali, he shouldn’t have been forced out of boxing for his beliefs.”
During Ali’s exile, Frazier was one of his key allies. When Ali was banned from boxing, denying him his prime vehicle to earn a living, it was Frazier who said, “It’s not right to take a man’s pick and shovel.”
Frazier even went to Washington, D.C., to urge President Richard Nixon to lift Ali’s ban and give him a boxing license.
Former LIFE magazine sports editor Dan Wolf, who covered Frazier for several years in the 1960s through the ‘70s, said Frazier wanted to fight Ali yet was compassionate to his plight.
“Joe wanted Ali back in the ring,” Wolf said, “because Joe wanted universal acceptance as the best in the world, and he knew that wouldn’t happen until he’d beaten Ali. But apart from his own self-interest, Joe was good to Ali during his years of exile. On several occasions, he engaged in prearranged publicity confrontations, which allowed Ali to remain in the limelight and earn money on the lecture tour.”
According to Wolf, the Baptist Frazier also had no problem with the premises of the Muslim Ali’s stand.
“Joe was genuinely religious,” Wolf said. “Initially, he had a lot of respect for Ali’s religious beliefs. When Ali got nasty before their first fight; when he started calling Joe an Uncle Tom, Joe’s feelings changed. But up until then, Joe had no problem with Ali’s decision not to serve in the Army. He told me, ‘If Baptists weren’t allowed to fight, I wouldn’t fight either.’”
In the fall of 1970, Ali won a series of legal suits that gave him the right to obtain licenses to box in Atlanta and New York, where he beat Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena, respectively.
That set the wheels in motion for Ali and Frazier to fight for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world. Although many boxing people felt Ali should have taken at least one or two more “tune-up” fights before going after Frazier to regain the championship, pessimism concerning the legal system (his draft evasion case was sent to the U. S. Supreme Court and was pending) loomed within Ali’s camp.
“The Muslims were convinced Ali was going to prison,” said Sports Illustrated boxing writer Mark Kram. “Absolutely convinced. They felt he should get one more payday.”
Ali’s long-time physician, Ferdie Pacheco, also felt apprehensive but believed the returning champion should have waited longer. “Now that he had fought himself back into shape (Quarry, Bonavena),” Pacheco explained, “what he should have done was let his body recuperate. But the money was there, the opportunity was there. And Ali didn’t know if he’d be fighting or in jail in four or five months, so he went after it.”
Great championship fights are rare. Championship fights between great fighters with compelling action are even more rare. Between 1971 and 1975, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought three fights that have been the standards by which great fights are measured. Their rivalry is as great as any sport has ever produced and is a frequent reference point when sports rivalries are discussed.
Their contrasting styles, both in and out of the ring, made for a great matchup of skill, style and personality.
Ali was a brash fighter, constantly talking in and out of the ring, annoying and amusing opponents and fans alike. He was a dancing boxer, using lateral movement to create openings and angles to take advantage of his opponents with jabs and lightning-quick combinations.
Frazier was more introverted outside the ring, focused more on the job of boxing than personal publicity; he sought respect, not popularity. He was a slugger, constantly moving forward in the ring to get close to his opponent. Once in firing range, he used both hands to punish the body. When Frazier’s opponents pulled their arms and hands down to protect against a body attack, Frazier hooked viciously to the head with his left.
The late boxing columnist Jimmy Cannon wrote at the time of their first matchup: “Their race and their trade are all they appear to have in common.”
Although the bout was to be held in MSG, the driving force behind it came from California.
Jack Kent Cooke was the owner of the Los Angeles Lakers , Los Angeles Kings and the Forum, and Jerry Perenchio was a Beverly Hills entertainment mogul. Until December 30, 1970, when the fight was signed, neither man had met Ali or Frazier. Yet they agreed to pay each fighter $2.5 million.
Cooke wanted the fight at the Forum. However, because the Garden had been supportive of Frazier as he worked his way toward the heavyweight title during Ali’s exile, Frazier insisted that the fight be in Madison Square Garden.
As a result, MSG got the box-office receipts, and Cooke and Perenchio received everything else, including all of the closed-circuit television money.
Once the fighters were signed, the promotional buildup began. For the first time in history, two undefeated heavyweight fighters, each with a legitimate claim to the title were fighting for the championship of the world. It was the stylish, 6-3 dancer Ali against the blue-collar, 5-11 puncher Frazier. Some viewed the matchup as Ali the Draftdodger versus Patriotic Joe. Others had the fight pegged as the Poetry-spouting Muslim versus the Bible-reading Baptist. In some African American quarters, it was a Black Militant versus a Black Tom.
Ali further encouraged the latter idea with inflammatory pre-fight statements such as:
“Frazier’s no real champion. Nobody wants to talk to him. Oh, maybe Nixon will call him, if he wins. I don’t think he’ll call me. But 98 percent of my people are for me. They identify with my struggle; same one they’re fighting every day in the streets. If I win, they win. I lose, they lose. Any Black who thinks Joe Frazier can whup me is an Uncle Tom. Everybody who’s Black wants me to keep winning.”
“The only people rooting for Joe Frazier are White people in suits, Alabama sheriffs, and members of the Ku Klux Klan. I’m fighting for the little man in the ghetto.”
“Joe Frazier is an Uncle Tom.”
Although Frazier was born and grew up poor in Beaufort, South Carolina, dealing with Jim Crow laws and racism and later migrated to the ghettos of Philadelphia where he learned to box, the perceptions persisted that Frazier was fighting for White people and the maintenance of the status quo. “For a guy who did as much for him as I did, that was cruel,” Frazier said. “I grew up like the Black man—he didn’t. I cooked the liquor for my daddy (who was a bootlegger). I cut the wood. I worked on the farm. I lived in the ghetto.
“Yeah, I Tommed,” Frazier continued. “When he asked me to help him get a license to fight, I Tommed for him. For him! He betrayed my friendship. I was shocked. I sat down and said to myself, ‘I’m gonna kill him.’”
When both fighters entered the ring the night of March 8, 1971, in Madison Square Garden, the city of New York seemingly shut down. More than 20,000 people packed inside the Garden, many dressed in spectacular, flamboyant and outrageous clothing. They came in orange and purple, mint-green, velvet hot pants, full-length mink coats, black leather attire, wide-brim hats, and leaned on diamond-studded canes. Among them were many celebrities: Miles Davis, Ted Kennedy, Count Basey, Woody Allen, Aretha Franklin, Diahann Carroll, David Frost and Raquel Welch.
“I looked down from the ring, and it was a sea of glitter,” recalled the late Eddie Futch, who was Frazier’s assistant trainer at the time. “I had never seen a boxing event with so many celebrities.”
Singer Frank Sinatra had a press credential as a photographer for LIFE Magazine (he shot the cover photo for the April 1971 issue), and actor Burt Lancaster was a commentator on the worldwide closed-circuit telecast. The evening was primed for excitement.
Ali and Frazier did not disappoint those in attendance or watching on worldwide closed-circuit television.
“The intensity level that night,” explained the fight’s referee, Arthur Mercante, “in and out of the ring, was extraordinary. The smallest bit of action—and there was a lot of it—brought roars from the crowd.”
Ali circled the ring to open round one, assaulting Frazier’s head with jabs and hooks. Frazier, meanwhile, was bobbing and weaving, ducking some of Ali’s punches while catching others. The first three rounds were won by Ali but by the fourth round, Ali was no longer dancing. He lay on the ropes and absorbed Frazier’s body punches and timely hooks to the head. As the middle rounds continued, the momentum shifted to Frazier. In the ninth round, Ali was dancing again and, with a series of jabs and combinations, made Frazier back up on buckled knees. Though shaken, Frazier finished the round.
Momentum shifted again as Frazier seized control in the 11th round with a brutal attack of lefts to Ali’s head, forcing the outspoken boxer to stagger across the ring. Ali, clearly shaken, was able to exaggerate his movements to con Frazier from vigorously pouncing on him for the knockout.
“I knew he liked to clown,” Frazier explained later. “But I also knew he was shook. I was always trained that a man is most dangerous when he’s hurt.”
As the fifteenth and final round began, Ali was behind on all three judging cards and needed a knockout to win. Less than a minute into the round, Frazier unleashed a powerful left hook that sent Ali to the floor. Incredibly, Ali was up at the count of three. “I looked up,” Ali said, “and I was on the floor. My first thought: Get up.”
The two exhausted men fought the last two minutes. “It was the last round that I remember the best,” Mercante said. “That round showed me that Muhammad Ali was the most valiant fighter I’ve ever seen. Frazier hit him as hard as a man can be hit. He went down, and any other man would have stayed on the canvas, but he was up in three seconds. I didn’t even have time to pick up a count.” Frazier won by unanimous decision.
For Frazier, this was the high point of his career. He would fight only 10 more times with six wins and four losses. His defeats consisted of two brutal dismantlings by the sledgehammer fists of George Foreman and his rematch with Ali in January 1974 and their classic “Thrilla in Manila” in September 1975.
For Ali, his loss to Frazier started his long mission to reclaim the heavyweight crown. Shortly after the Fight of the Century defeat, Ali was shocked by Ken Norton, who broke his jaw. Ali then beat Norton and won his rematch with Frazier in January 1974. In October of 1974, Ali beat the odds and stunned Heavyweight Champion George Foreman with an eighth-round knockout to reclaim the heavyweight crown. He lost to Leon Spinks in early 1978 and then beat Spinks in the rematch later that year to reclaim the heavyweight championship for an unprecedented third time.
Muhammad Ali, whom many proclaim as the greatest boxer of all time, celebrated his 70th birthday Jan. 17. Noted for his lightning quick feet, hands and mouth, the Louisville, Ky., native won the Golden Gloves Tournament in 1959 and an Olympic gold medal in 1960. During the 1960s, Ali won all his bouts, the majority of them by knockout. Among his most noted matches were a number of bouts he fought against Joe Frazier and George Foreman.
Do you consider yourself a fighter? I’ve always considered myself one. For most of my life every time I got knocked down, I got right back up, stronger than ever. But now that I look back, I got up because God’s righteous right hand pulled me up.
To Laila Ali, being an athlete means living like a role model, whether one wants to or not.
And, as the boxer and former athlete told CNN at the Tuesday premiere of the Jackie Robinson biopic “42,” she doesn’t have much sympathy for athletes who think otherwise.
Ali said that she hopes the film, which shows Robinson breaking Major League baseball’s color barrier, will remind moviegoers of that.
Everything must be perfect.
At least that’s the way it seems. You have no margin for error in this economy, no second chances, no room for mistakes. If you want to keep your job, you get it right or you don’t get it at all.
No pressure, huh?
On June 25, 1967, heavyweight boxing legend Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title as heavyweight champion.
The action was a result of his defiant stand against what he thought was an unjust war. He refused induction into the Army after being drafted, stating that he was a practicing Muslim minister and that his religious beliefs prevented him fighting in the Vietnam War. During the controversy, Ali argued that he had no quarrel with the Viet Cong.