By AP – The money was huge – $ 2.5 million each – as was the stage for Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Their first fight at Madison Square Garden was so epic it was billed as the fight of the century, and 50 years later it reigns undefeated.
Frazier was the undefeated heavyweight champion, a small cannonball from a fighter with a left hook that could knock out an elephant. Ali was, well, Ali even though Frazier insisted on calling him (Cassius) Clay as he rehabilitated himself after being banned from boxing for more than three years for refusing the Vietnam draft.
Stars and smitten stars came in their best to watch on a Monday night in Manhattan. It was March 8, 1971, and those thronging the garden were dressed in the fashions of the day, which included full-length fur coats, corduroy pants, and peacock-feathered hats – and these were only men. There were also plenty of fashionable women in miniskirts or long, flowing dresses, with enough skin and hair on both sexes for the crowd to look as good as the fight.
At ringside, Frank Sinatra had a camera in his hand, recounting the scene for Life magazine. There were Kennedys in the building, as well as celebrities of the time like Diana Ross and Woody Allen. The Apollo 14 moonwalkers were also there, still bearded from their trip to space.
“Everyone who was anyone was there,” said Gene Kilroy, who was Ali’s longtime business manager. “If you weren’t there, you were nobody.”
Frazier was a relentless puncher filled with rage towards a fighter who couldn’t help but put him down. Ali was a little rusty in his third fight after a comeback, but he was already The Greatest – and his fans couldn’t imagine him losing for the first time in his career, to Frazier or anyone else.
Before the fight, they were exchanging taunts and slurs that went beyond the usual fight promotion, a match Ali won easily as usual. Ali had no shortage of things to say about his rival, who he said was so ugly “his face should be given to the wildlife office.”
“Joe Frazier will be a punching bag,” Ali said on the eve of the fight. “Frazier doesn’t even look like a heavyweight champion – too small.”
Frazier was a slight 6-5 favorite in a fight that captivated both the nation and the world. Not only were the fighters making money that seemed crazy at the time, but the fight itself was expected to fetch between $ 20 million and $ 30 million once all the profits were tallied.
It has performed in 370 closed-circuit venues across the country, including an outdoor performance at the sparkling new Trois-Rivières Stadium in Pittsburgh, where fans sat in temperatures of 17 degrees Fahrenheit (minus -8 degrees Celsius) to watch on a floppy disk screen set up. in the infield.
Fire hoses were shot at a crowd at the Chicago International Amphitheater, where 1,000 fans became unruly when they were kicked out of the sold-out theater, while in Duluth, Minnesota, people had to be content. to listen to the fight because there was no picture. .
The ringside seats were $ 150, although the upper part of the garden could be reserved for $ 20. There have been reports that the ticket scalpers were making up to $ 700 and business was booming.
It was not just a fight, but a political and sociological litmus test. Ali was adored by many but despised by many more for his mouth, his refusal to be inducted into the military and his Muslim religion. Frazier was his foil, the heavyweight of a worker labeled “Uncle Tom” by Ali because so many white Americans were on his side, encouraging him to win.
Meanwhile, around ten American soldiers were still dying every day in Vietnam. The following month, some 200,000 people marched peacefully to the US Capitol in Washington DC to protest a seemingly endless war. And, with a long, hot summer looming, occasional race riots have continued to erupt in a polarized country.
“It went beyond boxing,” said Ed Schuyler Jr, who was at ringside covering the bout for The Associated Press. “There was a mixture of religion, patriotism and, of course, racism. All of those things were in it.”
They fought for 15 rounds, sometimes furiously, with Frazier crouching forward throwing large hooks from the left while Ali fired quick punches and right hands to counter him. But Ali’s legs weren’t what they were before his layoff, and he often had to hold on and fight when he was previously at his best stick and move.
The two spoke as well as they fought, exchanging taunts with left hooks and right hands. At one point, referee Arthur Mercante warned them to stop talking too much, even though neither of them was listening.
Ali won a few early laps with jabs and right hands that made Frazier’s head spin. His punches were sharp even though he was a half pace slower, and he had no trouble finding the smallest target in front of him. But Frazier kept pushing forward, and the left hook started to land more evenly, especially in the 11th when Ali was knocked down with a and took a beat the rest of the inning.
Still, Ali had won the 14th round and appeared to rally when Frazier suddenly unleashed his best left hook on a night filled with them. Surprisingly, Ali was on the web. He somehow managed to get up and finish the round and the fight – but his fate that night had been decided.
Frazier would win a unanimous decision mainly because he simply refused to lose.
“No one would have beaten Joe Frazier that night,” Kilroy said. “Joe was in the area. He said: ‘I’m tired of him, my kids go to school and they say your dad is a gorilla.’ Ali would say “Joe knows I’m just promoting the fight.” I said to Ali, “No, he takes this seriously. Because deep down, Joe hated Ali. “
“Who is the champion? Who is the champion? Who is the champion?” Frazier sang afterward, although he hardly sounded like a winner. As Ali’s jaw was grotesquely swollen and he went to the hospital for x-rays, Frazier’s injuries were even more severe and he would eventually require hospitalization.
But as Frazier left the ring as the undisputed heavyweight champion, Ali became a winner as well. He had fought beautifully and there was no shame in losing what he had done.
“They wanted a crucifixion, but if they think that’s what they got, they’re bad judges of the genre,” the late Hugh McIlvanney wrote the following day in The Guardian. “The big man came out bigger than he came in.”
The next day Ali met the press, speaking softly through his swollen jaw as he lay on his bed at the New Yorker Hotel.
“It’s a good feeling to lose,” Ali said. “The people who follow you are also going to lose. You have to set an example of how to lose. That way they can see how I lose. It will be old news in a week. A plane crashes, a president murdered., murdered civil rights leader, people forget in two weeks. Old news. “
When finished, Ali and Kilroy got into a new RV that Ali had purchased and Kilroy drove the former champion to his home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Upon arrival, the neighbors gathered to cheer Ali, who invited them all inside.
Ali would reclaim his title two more times, including his knockout of George Foreman three years later in the iconic Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire which might have been his biggest fight. And he and Frazier would continue to make their rivalry a trilogy, meeting two more times, Ali taking both fights. The third fight was the infamous Thrilla in Manila, which Ali said was the closest thing to death he had ever known – and a fight no man ever fully recovered from.
“It was all part of Ali’s legend, to which a lot more would be added. There would be Manila, Zaire winning the (Leon) Spinks title, it all added to the legend,” said Schuyler. “But for Joe, that was it. Joe would have been better off retiring after that. He was knocked out twice by Foreman, lost twice to Ali. Even when Joe won, he was left in the shadows. of Muhammad Ali. There was nothing he could do about it. he. “
Frazier died at the age of 67 in 2011, strapped for money and still bitter about his treatment by Ali. Ali spent much of his later life with his voice muffled by Parkinson’s disease. He passed away in 2016.
Half a century later, they are gone. But their epic fight continues.
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