The Epic Ali vs. Frazier Fight: 40 Years Later

| by Ian Palmer

Somebody finally did it. After years of enduring his child-like poetry and round-winning predictions, somebody finally shut the big mouth up and knocked him on his ass while doing it. The Louisville Lip was buttoned, bloodied, and swollen during the Fight of the Century on the night of March 8, 1971 courtesy of one ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier.

However, Muhammad Ali had done it again. He did what he always seemed to do to Frazier and everybody else. We heard his thunder even in defeat. While Frazier should have been basking in the spotlight and celebrating his moment of glory, Ali was casting a shadow over him and inching his way into the limelight.

It was an astonishing turnaround, and one that Frazier never saw coming. While he thought beating Ali would have catapulted him into the hearts of Americans and boxing fans the world over, it actually had the opposite affect on them. After years of putting up with his brash and arrogant antics and his refusal fight for his country, the majority of the American public suddenly reacted like parents of a runaway child. They broke down and cried and opened their arms to embrace Ali, and they haven't let go since. It seemed all was forgiven.

While Frazier fought the fight of his life on Mar. 8, it was Ali’s courage that received the accolades. It was Ali who had won even while losing. Although it wasn’t all Ali’s doing, Frazier felt betrayed. He had lived in Ali’s shadow long enough. He couldn’t really understand the fuss and fascination with his opponent. Their sporting lives may have taken similar paths, but other than the fact they were both boxers, they were as different as night and day.

Ali won a gold medal as a light heavyweight at the Rome Olympics in 1960 and Frazier won a heavyweight gold four years later in Tokyo. Ali had become a spokesman for the American black community and many people believed he had fought himself out of poverty to the world stage, but it was actually Frazier, who was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, as one of 13 children, who had the greater struggles. Ali, who possessed a mean streak, often called Frazier dumb and ignorant. However both of them failed the same aptitude test given to them by the U.S. Army.

By the time Ali and Frazier were both reclassified by the military in 1967, Frazier was married with children of his own to feed, so he was excused from military duty. Ali, on the other hand, excused himself from joining the army while the Vietnam War was escalating. This incident became a major part of his history, boxing history, and U.S. history. While some saw Ali as just another draft dodger, many people admired him for standing up for his beliefs. By taking the stand he did, Ali was facing a few years in a jail cell instead of a cushy job entertaining the troops.

By this time, Frazier already had him in his sights because Ali was still the heavyweight champ and he formed a genuine dislike for him after watching his antics on television. But Frazier had yet to meet the man in person.

Ali was eventually stripped of his title for refusing military induction and Frazier became the undisputed champion after beating Jimmy Ellis for the vacant crown by a fifth-round TKO at Madison Square Garden in Feb. 1970. However, Ali was still considered by many to be the greatest heavyweight in the world and Frazier knew he had to beat him to become recognized as the best. Although Ali was embroiled in legal troubles, Frazier knew it was just a matter of time before he would be granted a license to fight and the two would be on a collision course.

It was 1968 and Ali was now becoming a forgotten man in the world of boxing. He wanted to get his license back and Frazier knew the two were headed for a big payday if they ever met. ‘Smokin Joe’ figured the best thing to do would be to help Ali out wherever possible. Ali called Frazier and pair of them embarked on some wild publicity stunts to draw attention to Frazier as the heir apparent to the crown and to Ali’s plight.

These were the days of some of Ali’s most creative shenanigans and he could often be seen visiting Frazier’s training camp to raise hell. He even challenged Frazier to a fight in a local Philadelphia park. Thousands of people showed up, but of course Ali and Frazier didn’t. But they’d done an excellent marketing job for a proposed matchup. Frazier even campaigned in Washington on Ali’s behalf and went as far as lending him money during his boxing exile.

When Ali was finally granted a license to box again in 1970, there was only one fight the public wanted to see, and the wheels were put in motion. At this point, Ali had been out of the ring for three and a half years and a couple of tune-up bouts were needed. On Oct. 26, 1970, Ali made a successful comeback with a third-round TKO over Jerry Quarry in Atlanta.

Six weeks later, Ali met Oscar Bonavena in Madison Square Garden and won by a dramatic 15th- round TKO after dropping the tough Argentinean three times in the last round. While the time out of the ring definitely hurt Ali’s boxing skills, he was quick to find it actually helped his earning power as more people now supported him and more wanted to see him beaten.

Bids were coming in from all over the world to hold an Ali-Frazier showdown. It would be the first time in history that two undefeated heavyweight champs would meet for the undisputed crown. Ali was 31-0 and Frazier was 26-0. Two Los Angeles businessmen came up with the unheard of sum of $5 million for Ali and Frazier to split. While Ali didn’t really care where the fight took place, Frazier insisted it be brought east to New York. The contracts were signed, sealed, and delivered and the bout was given time to fester into a hate match between two men who got along fine up to this point.

While promoting the fight, Frazier suddenly found himself on the receiving end of some of Ali’s crueler taunts and barbs, such as being called an "Uncle Tom." Frazier couldn’t understand how he was portrayed as a traitor to his race by Ali and how Ali continuously called him the "white man’s champion." Ali always said it was just a part of the promotion game, but Frazier didn't really buy that as their fight was sold out and the fighter’s weren’t making a percentage of the closed circuit gate.

This hurt Frazier deeply and he felt betrayed by Ali. He didn’t understand it was just Ali’s way of drumming up interest in the bout and he was doing an excellent job of it. Although Ali was contracted to be in New York for the 10 days leading up to the fight, he had to hightail it down to Miami for the last seven days to escape the mayhem he had created, returning to New York on the day of the weigh in.

When March 8 arrived, New York City was alive with anticipation and excitement. The bout was the 17th world heavyweight title fight held in Madison Square Garden. There was never a fight quite like it there before and there’s never been one since. The bout was beamed by satellite to 35 foreign countries, 760 press credentials were given out and Frank Sinatra photographed the event for Life magazine. The Garden was packed with fight fans and non fight fans alike. Movie star Burt Lancaster was a commentator for closed circuit while Dustin Hoffman, Diana Ross, and Woody Allen mingled in the crowd with an assortment of politicians, pimps, hoodlums, and real boxing fans.

When the bell rang, it didn’t just start a sporting event, it was seen as the establishment vs. the anti establishment. Ali had gained a large following with the younger generation since he spent a lot of his time in exile giving speeches and lectures to college students. And while Frazier didn’t really have any deep political feelings either way, he was backed by the old order, by the supporters of the government and the war.

Frazier was a 7 to 5 betting favorite and many of the old time boxers such as Archie Moore, Joe Louis, Floyd Patterson, Jack Dempsey, Jersey Joe Walcott and Billy Conn were backing him. Ali made a prediction and sealed it in an envelope which was to be opened on the closed circuit telecast just before the fight to help prevent a late surge of betting. He picked the sixth round. In another move to protect the fight from being influenced by boxing’s shady side, referee Arthur Mercante didn’t find out until four o’clock that afternoon that he’d be in charge of the bout.

The fight itself was a classic. The first few rounds were relatively even, but Ali was absorbing more punches than usual. When he felt tired he often went to the ropes and allowed Frazier to bang away at his body, giving away rounds he could have possibly won. Ali landed more punches, but Frazier was landing the heavier artillery. He didn’t mind taking four or five quick, snapping shots from Ali to land one big one of his own.

The 205 lb. Frasier was relentless, throwing murderous punches to Ali’s sides and head, and the 215 lb. Ali was catching Frazier with quick combinations while coming in. Ali was clowning and talking during the middle of the fight and his cornermen, Angelo Dundee and Drew “Bundini” Brown, were all over him for it. Little did they know the clowning may have saved Ali’s bacon in round 11.

At this point, both men’s faces had become badly swollen and misshapen. Frazier’s lips were bleeding and his eyes were just slits. However, he could see well enough to land a tremendous left hook to the side of Ali’s jaw in the 11th round. Ali had already been down in the round after slipping, but this time he was hurt badly and looked ready to be taken. He relied on his bag of tricks to survive. He exaggerated his body movements greatly and Frazier thought he was clowning again and let him off the hook, literally.

The tide turned again in the 14h round. The 29-year-old Ali had seemingly found his legs and suddenly became energized. He was now a moving target and was battering Frazier’s 27-year-old head with speed and ferocity. When the 14th round ended, many fans thought Ali may be able to dig himself out of the hole he had dug, with a last-round knockout.

The momentum shifted once and for all early in the 15th round. Frazier never had an answer for Ali’s taunts and cutting words. He wasn’t an overly educated man and didn’t really have the speaking skills and wit to reply to Ali’s verbal torture. However, every word that Frazier wanted to say but couldn’t spit out, was packed into his fists that night. It started out from deep down and Frazier appeared to leave his feet as he landed one of the most devastating left hooks in boxing history. It crashed into the right side of Ali’s jaw and as Ali was free falling to the canvas it seemed like a 10 count would just be a formality.

Ali had one more trick up his sleeve though. After all the psychological warfare he used in his career, this was his masterpiece and most damaging act of all. It hurt Frazier more than any smart-ass remark or insult ever could. As Frazier turned around from a neutral corner he watched in awe as Ali rose to his feet as quickly as he left them. This was a blow that could have knocked down buildings, a punch that should have sent Ali into next week, but it only stopped him momentarily.

When Ali got to his feet, Frazier must have felt like somebody who had just woken a sleeping bear. Ali not only recovered in a matter of seconds, he actually had enough sense and skill to stop Frazier from following up and went on the attack himself. When the bell ended the fight, Ali’s jaw was the size of a grapefruit and Frazier’s face was a mass of blood and lumps.

While waiting for the decision to be read, it was obvious the crowd had witnessed one of the greatest boxing matches in history. Frazier won by scores of 11 rounds to four, eight rounds to six with one even, and nine to six. However, Ali had shown as much courage as anybody ever had in the squared circle and was now seen in a different light by many people.

Ali was taken to hospital after the fight for X-rays, but they proved to be negative. Frazier was in much worse shape and was also hospitalized. It’s unsure how long he stayed there, but it was said to be about three weeks. In addition, rumors that he had died were quickly spread throughout the boxing world.

Frazier was indeed alive and well, but that first fight against Ali was undoubtedly his peak. He was still one of the best heavyweights in the world, but things started going downhill after that night. He would lose both rematches to Ali and would also lose twice to George Foreman.

Ali, on the other hand, would regain the championship against Foreman and would remain in the spotlight until his skills eroded toward the end of his career. When his boxing days were over, Ali was stricken with Parkinson’s syndrome and over the 40 years that have passed since the Fight of the Century he became one of the most beloved people to ever walk the face of the earth.

A lot of that had to do with the performance both men gave on March 8, 1971.