By Thomas Gerbasi
March 17, 2016
Joe Frazier wouldn’t go as far as to say his first bout with Muhammad Ali was just another fight. But it was a fight, which meant that for all the hype, all the talk and all the celebrities at ringside, Frazier still had a job to do, and that’s all that really mattered.
“The part about stopping the world, I didn’t pay one ounce of attention to that,” Frazier told me in 2005. “My job was to watch him (Ali), and figure out what he was doing; otherwise he was gonna wrap me up and throw me away. I didn’t focus on all the great entertainers that were there or in the crowd – some of them were with me, some of them with him. My job was to concentrate on what Yank (Durham) told me in the corner and to get the job done.”
Frazier got the job done on March 8, 1971, in a 15-round fight rightfully dubbed “The Fight of the Century.” Forty-five years later, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao still have nothing on that night in Madison Square Garden, and it’s hard to picture anything like it ever happening again.
Simply put, it was more than a sporting event. It was a cultural happening, a clash of two young men at the height of their powers who represented more than just their respective camps. They were friends turned enemies. Flash versus grit. And in an incendiary time in American history, battle lines were drawn early on, as the politically fearless Ali faced off against the quietly simmering Frazier.
Strangely enough, all of that may have overshadowed the reality that these were the best two heavyweights in the world, unbeaten and untouched rivals on their way to becoming two of the best of all-time.
At least that was the case until the opening bell, and while endless hype usually leads to disappointment, Frazier vs. Ali I exceeded expectations.
Claiming that he would stop Frazier in six rounds, Ali tried to live up to his words, strafing Frazier with rapid-fire shots as the Philadelphian charged forward, looking to catch his opponent anywhere with his patented left hook. By round six, the two were battling on even terms, and Frazier wasn’t going anywhere.
“In the sixth round, I dropped my hands and told him ‘Sucka, it’s the sixth round and I ain’t stopped yet,’” Frazier said. “Then I pulled him off the ropes and laughed at him.”
And even when Ali’s antics and underrated toughness started to chip away at Frazier’s concentration, it was his longtime coach and mentor, Durham, who quickly reeled his charge back in.
“Muhammad shook his head when I hit him with three or four hooks, telling me that he’s all right,” said Frazier. “I went back to the corner and I said ‘Yank, is this guy out of his mind? Is he going crazy?’”
Durham’s response was as quick and to the point as a Frazier hook.
“Don’t worry about that. I want you to go right back with your left, and he’ll fall after a while.”
Frazier kept throwing the hook that night at Madison Square Garden, kept focused, and though Ali didn’t fall for a ten count, it was close, as Frazier, wearing trunks Everlast made out of the curtains in his house, nearly halted Ali in the 11th round and then put the “Louisville Lip” on the deck in the 15th round.
It was an image seared into the minds of boxing fans around the globe, but Ali, whose will may have been the equal of his skill, was still able to rise to his feet and make it to the final bell. His jaw swollen grotesquely, the expression on his face said it all when it came to who won the fight, and the judges then made it official by scores of 8-6-1, 9-6, and 11-4.
Joe Frazier had his 27th win and he retained his title. More importantly, he eliminated any doubt as to who the true heavyweight champion of the world was. Like he said, it was a fight, and he did the job he came to do.
“The thing that I was concerned about was him and I,” Frazier said. “I couldn’t surround my mind around the people that were there, whether Sammy Davis would say something wrong when I threw the left hook, or about Frank Sinatra snapping pictures. My mind was on getting the job done. I don’t know how any man could get caught up in the fans out there when he knows he’s got me in front of him.”
Ali was no one to be trifled with either, and the HBO documentary “Ali-Frazier I: One Nation…Divisible” revealed later that there were rumors that Frazier died after the bout. Those rumors were obviously proved to be false, but “Smokin’ Joe” did spend an extended period in the hospital recovering from extreme fatigue and high blood pressure after meeting Ali for the first time, showing just how much of a grueling war this truly was.
Some would say that Frazier, just 27 at the time, was never the same. Yes, there was the epic third battle with Ali in 1975 in which both fighters dug back in time to produce perhaps the most punishing fight of all-time, but including the “Thrilla in Manila,” Frazier went just 5-4-1 over his final 10 bouts. Conversely, Ali went 25-4 after the first loss of his career. And while he went on to more great achievements, it may be accurate to say that despite losing the fight, he was never better than on March 8, 1971. That’s most certainly the case when it comes to Frazier, and you get the impression that he was fine with perhaps trading future success for one night of glory.
That glory is reserved for both men though. How can you tell? We’re still talking about it today, comparing every “SuperFight” to the one that raised the bar so high it may never be reached. I even wore my Roots of Fight Joe Frazier hoodie a couple weeks back and had a car stop short on Court Street in Brooklyn and hold up traffic so the driver could yell out to me that Ali got robbed in Madison Square Garden in 1971. I can’t recall any other fight getting that reaction, especially not 45 years after the final bell sounded.
And the more you talk about it or watch it, the more you wished you were there, or were even able to see live. In lieu of that, anytime you had a brush with greatness, like I did with my Frazier interview more than 10 years ago, you savored that moment. I even have a framed photo of the 15th round knockdown signed by the late referee Arthur Mercante, who just happened to be the brother of my grandmother’s podiatrist. So when I got the chance to talk with Ali at a press gathering in New York City back in 2002, it was going to be as close as I was going to get to a man that wasn’t just a great fighter, but a cultural icon.
So as the heavyweight legend sat there, I posed a question to him through his longtime friend and photographer Howard Bingham. Bingham stopped me and said “Move closer, ask him yourself.”
“Muhammad, how does it feel to still bring out a crowd like this after all these years?”
Ali turned his head and gestured me closer.
“This crowd is too small,” he answered.
When you’ve fought in “The Fight of the Century” anything less can’t compare.