By Chuck Mindenhall
March 3, 2016
Even in the fight game, which lives most vitally in heightened states of anticipation, dubbing something “The Fight” before it has a chance to play out might come off like reckless hyperbole. That was particularly true in early 1971, when the fresh-out-of-exile Muhammad Ali met the heavyweight champ Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden.
It was a massive bout, an unforgettable moment in time that captivated the sporting world’s imagination heading in. Yet in this case, calling it “The Fight” ended up not going far enough. In the immediate aftermath of that fateful first clash between Ali and Frazier, scribes added three words to the original designation — “The Fight of the Century” — because it busted the seams of even the wildest, most optimistic expectations.
Which, of course, tells you all you need to know — 71 years was a lot of century to unseat.
Jack Johnson’s TKO of James J. Jeffries in his 1910 title defense — the original “Fight of the Century” — was contested in a time of extreme racial strife, which left the stakes in the seething blood of mankind. Jack Dempsey’s victory over Luis Angel Firpo at the Polo Grounds in 1923, in which Firpo was knocked down seven times before delivering a right hand that sent Dempsey flying out of the ring, has stood the test of time. Plenty have. Rocky Marciano’s knockout out of Jersey Joe Walcott in the 13th to win the heavyweight title…Willie Pep avenging himself against Sandy Saddler to regain the featherweight title in 1949…Joe Louis winning the rematch against the German Max Schmeling in 1938, an undertaking that symbolized the Western powers aim at Nazi Germany.
These were big fights that defined the century as late as 1971.
Yet on March 8 of that year, as Ali and Frazier came together in the heart of Manhattan, the hype itself was historic. Given the dimensions of the day, both figures represented much more than their own flesh and blood. The undefeated Ali, who at 25 years old had been stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to register in the draft, was back at the doorstep of greatness after a three-and-a-half year suspension. The undefeated Frazier, who was cast by many as a villain in the lead-up, the indestructible force that had pulled up residence in his absence.
Champion versus champion, each to receive a $2.5 million purse. It was a moment of truth. Frazier didn’t like Ali, who was his exact opposite in very possible way — an outspoken, audacious, attention-seeker who’d referred to him an “Uncle Tom.” Ali didn’t like Frazier, who’d collected titles against Buster Mathis and Jimmy Ellis during his exile.
And what a formidable champion “Smokin’ Joe” was.
“The two places Frazier communicates best,” wrote Thomas Thompson in a March 1971 cover feature in LIFE, “are in the ring, when a cloak of menace and fury drops over him. And on a nightclub stage, where he sings with strength and sincerity.”
Ali predicted he’d finish Frazier in the sixth round. Frazier didn’t have a prediciton. But he had never trained for somebody as fiercely as he did for Ali.
Outside the arena was bedlam. Inside the stars packed its seats. Film director Woody Allen was there, along with Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Burt Lancaster was part of the broadcast commentating crew with Don Dunphy and Archie Moore. Norman Mailer was there, too, and he’d later dedicate a short book on the fight, called The King of the Hill. Bing Crosby couldn’t get in, and had to watch on a closed circuit among thousands at Radio City Music Hall. But Frank Sinatra, ensuring he’d get a spot as close to the action as possible, took a freelance gig as Life magazine’s ringside photographer.
Everybody wanted to be as near them ropes as they could.
Because everybody knew that inside those ropes history would be made.
Though Ali had a couple of tune-up fights leading up — against Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena — nobody knew if he’d be as spry on his feet as he’d been during his dominant run in the mid-’60s. Would the big man dance in defiance of gravity, flowing lightly with punches that were anything but? Or would Frazier, whose left hook meant curtains for any chin that encountered it, cut the ring to the size of a closet?
The answer was yes. And no. Things shifted quickly from the opening bell, the narrative wouldn’t sit still. Frazier, in lime green trunks, plowed ahead from his trademark low crouch, unleashing ferociously on Ali’s body. His pace was frantic. Ali, in his classic red trunks, peppering Frazier inside and using his best punch — the jab — in space. Yet Frazier, constantly bobbing forth, his head never still, would slip under a punch and counter with that left hook, his arm extending from his shoulders like the blade of a scythe. Behind everything was the promise finality, the brutal power to destroy a mark.
How could Ali play in such a minefield with such irreverence?
Still, though the fight was playing out through three rounds to Frazier’s tune, it was Ali winning the bout — and it was Frazier doing the taunting. Referee Arthur Mercante warned both fighters to zip it. Frazier, who’d envisioned the moment so long, couldn’t stop. When Ali would throw big with his left, Frazier would duck, in one motion from that low position, trying to take Ali’s head off with his left. He connected in the middle rounds. Ali absorbed the punches and shook his head, no — as if to say, nothing can hurt me. Yet as the sixth round came and went, Frazier mocked Ali with a laugh. He wasn’t going away in the sixth. He wasn’t going away at all.
The fight would go on.
Frazier seized the middle rounds, through the eighth. The crowd, which had joined in a chant of “Ali” in the opening round, now broke out into a chorus of “Joe! Joe! Joe!” At one point, with Ali reclining deep into the ropes, Frazier grabbed him and shoved him to the middle of the ring. Still, Ali — ever chipping away at a man’s psychology — delivered comical pitter-pat shots that seemed to make sport of Frazier’s intense seriousness. Why so serious, Joe?
Frazier was never fazed, though. He kept on with his mission, which was to destroy Ali.
Just when it looked like the flat-footed Ali was fading, he sprung to life in the ninth round. He opened up on Frazier midway through, scoring his best round since the second. The cat-like slap shots that Ali threw set up the blockbusters, and he tagged Frazier good. The crowd roared back into life with the reminder, which was this: Never assume Ali’s out of it. Much of Ali’s greatness sprang from desperation.
Ali came storming back, as he always did.
Yet by the 11th, Frazier — still pressuring ceaselessly, still throwing every left hook with menace, still driven to vanquish his target or die trying — hurt Ali with a body shot. The crowd erupted. A left to body, then left to chin landed flush. Ali was taking more punishment than he could dish.
By the 15th round, Frazier had worn down Ali. But it was only in that last round that he finally got the desired effect from that brutal left hand. He connected cleanly, and Ali, in a rare sequence, fell straight on his back. That clip has lived for 45 years, and the magnitude of that moment still lives on in the annals of all-time great moments in sport. Ali got up by the count of three, but by that point it was academic. Frazier would retain the heavyweight title in what would go down, to witnesses far and wide, as “The Fight of the Century.”
Made so not just from what went down that night between Ali and Frazier and the backdrop of war, racial tension and religious beliefs, but for what it meant for the legacies of both men.
If this fight never happened, if Ali hadn’t suffered a loss with the world watching, it’s likely he’d never have come to be known as “The Greatest.” For even those who wanted to see him lose, how he treated the rest of the decade was undeniable. That loss set up the direness and doubt for his fight with George Foreman in Zaire in 1974 — doubt he reimagined as inspiration. It set up the trilogy with Frazier, with Ali winning the rubber match four years later, in what would be forever known as “The Thrilla in Manila.”
On the biggest stage the sporting world had ever known, March 8, 1971, “Smokin’ Joe” bested Muhammad Ali. It wasn’t just one for the golden age of heavyweights. “The Fight of the Century” ended up being exactly what it was.