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The Fight of the Century

IN THIS era of over-hyped fights, promoters artfully build fights with catchy superlatives and clever nicknames. At times, the fight itself cannot match its bombastic buildup. However, there remains one fight that truly lived up to it's billing. The first contest between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier was simply called "The Fight of the Century."

To this day, the billing rings true.

When Ali challenged Frazier at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971, the ramifications reached far beyond the boxing ring. America had just emerged from the turbulent 1960s and the nation was divided. Ali was still held in contempt by much of the country. He was viewed as a brash, draft-dodging, Muslim who embodied the defiance and spirit of both the anti-war movement and the radical chic. Frazier -- who read the Bible and liked to sing -- was held up as the conscientious, blue-collar champion.

THE SHOWDOWN was the most anticipated heavyweight title fight since Joe Louis defeated Max Schmeling in their 1938 rematch at Yankee Stadium. It remains a night to remember.

Of those who participated that evening, seven have been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York. They are Ali, Frazier, referee Arthur Mercante, matchmaker Teddy Brenner, Garden president Harry Markson, Ali's trainer Angelo Dundee, Frazier's trainer Eddie Futch and a broadcast team that included Don Dunphy and Archie Moore.

Futch, a six-decade veteran of the sweet science, has said he has never seen a night like it before or since. There were more than 700 working press credentials issued for the fight and at least 500 more were turned down. The fight was a happening with celebrities such as Barbra Streisand, Bill Cosby, Sammy Davis Jr. and Hugh Hefner sitting ringside. Dustin Hoffman and Diana Ross were chased out of the press section but Frank Sinatra had a position along the ring apron as a photographer for Life magazine.

The fight was unique in that for the first time in history it matched an unbeaten former heavyweight champion against the unbeaten current champ. Ali was stripped of his title after refusing induction into the Army in 1967. Since he had not lost the crown in the ring, he proclaimed himself the People's Champion. As he entered the ring against Frazier, his record stood at 31-0 with 25 knockouts.

IN ALI'S absence, Frazier won recognition as heavyweight champion by the New York State Athletic Commission after stopping Buster Mathis in 1968 and universal recognition in 1970 after defeating WBA champion Jimmy Ellis. As he climbed into the ring, his record was 26-0 with 23 knockouts.

Frazier was 27 years old and in his prime. Ali was 29 and had completed two tune-up fights after three years of inactivity. He first returned to the ring with a third-round TKO of Jerry Quarry on October 26, 1970 and then stopped Oscar Bonavena in the 15th round on December 7, 1970. Both opponents were formidable contenders. Following the Bonavena fight, Ali called for Frazier.

The showdown between Ali and Frazier was the only fight that mattered and the participants were each compensated with a guaranteed purse of $2.5 million, a record at the time. The Garden was sold out a full month before the fight and ringside tickets were going for a record $150.

The promotion of the fight took an ugly turn when Ali chided the champion as an Uncle Tom and said that most white Americans would be rooting for Frazier. Ali later claimed he was trying to hype the fight, but at the time Frazier was under constant guard by police because he received death threats before the fight.

Mercante recalled being in awe of the atmosphere, which included Hollywood stars and national politicians as well as former champions Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey. The night was simply electric. Once the fighting started, it got even better.

IF STYLES make fights, then there has never been a pair of fighters who complemented each other more. Ali was the boxer and Frazier the puncher. The key to Ali's success was his speed. He possessed lightning-fast hands and had a left jab that could dictate a fight. He also had enough agility and footwork to escape danger. Frazier's best punch was a devastating left hook but his greatest asset might have been his indomitable will. A fight with Joe Frazier was a war of attrition. It was a war he was used to winning.

Ali weighed 215 pounds. Frazier weighed 205½. From the opening bell it appeared that inactivity caused Ali to lose a touch of his hand and footspeed. He chose to stand flatfooted and go to war on the champion's terms. It might not have been the best strategy, but it made for marvelous action. For 15 furious rounds, Frazier stalked Ali with his sweeping left hook while Ali countered by flashing his jab and stiff left-right combinations. They fought at a pace that seemed more accustomed to lightweights.

Ali predicted a sixth-round knockout but it was Frazier who carried Round 6. He pinned Ali to the ropes and battered the former champion to the head and body. Ali remained on the ropes and absorbed punishment, offering only token resistance. He launched three pitter-patter punchers as if he were playing "Patty Cake" with the champion. Later, Mercante would remark that Ali gave away rounds, such as the sixth. At one point in the eighth round, Mercante instructed him to fight.

The momentum changed in the ninth round when Ali backed Frazier up under a barrage of left-right combinations. They traded blows until the bell and the round was a clear statement from Ali -- it's not over yet. However, it would nearly end in the 11th. With 49 seconds left in that round, Ali was trapped in a corner and then rocked by a Frazier hook. Another hook buckled Ali's knees as he fell into the ropes. Ali stumbled across the ring with Frazier in pursuit. He was talking to Frazier and taunting him, never letting on how hurt he really was. Amazingly, Ali would survive the round.

Frazier put an exclamation mark on the night at 2:34 of the 15th round. As Ali prepared to launch a right uppercut, Frazier unloaded a left hook and dropped Ali. Again, Ali would survive the round, but the fight was already lost. The scoring by rounds was as follows: Judge Artie Aidala, 9-6 for Frazier. Judge Bill Recht, 11-4 for Frazier. Mercante had it 8-6, with one even round, for Frazier.

THE FIGHT was witnessed by 20,455 at the Garden and it has been estimated that 300 million more watched it across the world on closed-circuit television. The live gate generated $1.3 million.

Ali and Frazier set the standard that night at the Garden. They would meet two more times and their rivalry stands as one of boxing's most dramatic trilogies. Boxers will forever battle punchers, but few will do it with the skill, grace, courage and determination of Ali and Frazier.

They brought the best out of each other and out of the sport of boxing.


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Ali took his psychological warfare to Frazier's Philadelphia gym.
Courtesy The Ring

Frazier cemented his thrilling victory by sending Ali to the canvas in Round 15.
Courtesy The Ring