Fifty years of the Fight: How Ali Vs Frazier changed boxing
On this day, fifty years ago, Muhammad Ali showed the world how to win in defeat.
His first professional loss was a humbling capitulation, coming at the expense of immense physical retribution administered by the then world heavyweight champion Joe Frazier. But there is no denying the “Fight of the Century” on March 8, 1971 at New York’s Madison Square Garden lent to Ali’s career a different meaning--a new start after a forced exile, for sure, but also something deeper, more spiritual, something humbling and ecstatic at the same time.
The first of heavyweight boxing’s greatest trilogy, The Fight not only set up a bitter rivalry with Frazier that spanned five years and two continents but also made the world Ali’s audience, allowing him to create a unique social and political ideology that got him exiled in the first place. Saying “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong” landed Ali in trouble in 1967, probably more than protesting the military’s decision to draft him despite testing well below the mental competency requirements. By the time Ali returned to the circuit in 1970, the heavyweight division had several prized fighters like Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton.
When Ali finally earned the bout challenging Frazier, he was 29, with a 31-0 record and at almost the peak of his fitness. Almost, because no one knew to what extent the three-year exile affected Ali’s dexterity. Frazier, 27, was 26-0 and nearly four inches shorter but had the reputation of being an unceasing puncher “like a Sherman Tank”, as one commentator had remarked during the fight. It was billed as a contest of ideologies, of the suppressed Black American fighting the pro-government “white man’s champion”. The hype was mostly Ali’s doing, for he knew very early into his career that there is no such thing as negative publicity.
With lightning quick ad-lib, Ali showboated to boost his image. It was a lesson he had learnt from Gorgeous George, a flamboyant blonde wrestler, right after winning gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics. “Keep on bragging, keep on sassing,” he advised Ali. “People will pay to see someone shut your mouth.” Realising the country needed heroes, especially in the backdrop of an increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam, Ali created villains in his opponents. Frazier was the first prominent one. “The whole country was choosing up sides,” Sports Illustrated quotes Larry Merchant, then a columnist for Philadelphia Daily News. “It was the red states versus the blue states.”
Here’s the twist though. Frazier had supported Ali’s decision to stay out of Vietnam and even lent him money when he had lost his license. Yet, he was painted pro-establishment and an “Uncle Tom”. Son of a farmer, Frazier was deeply affected by accusat
ions of being a “traitor” by Ali, having spent his childhood at Beufort, South Carolina that had witnessed overwhelming poverty among the black communities. More than everything, there was a deep sense of betrayal. It was Frazier who had lobbied for Ali to get back his boxing license. All was forgotten in the heat of the fight. Years later, Ali apologised for calling Frazier “names I shouldn’t have called him”.
The fight in itself was something the world hadn’t witnessed before. Billed as the “sporting event of our age” by Sports Illustrated, each undefeated fighter was assured of a record $2.5 million. The Garden was sold out, with the top ticket fetching an “unprecedented $150, with scalpers getting $1000,” according to Time magazine. With top movie stars and politicians attending, the event had a throbbing social vein. Frank Sinatra was ringside. There was Hugh Hefner, Bob Dylan, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. “The hour of truth has arrived,” declared Ali while making his way to the fight. It was some truth for the undefeated champion. A night of punishment the likes of which boxing may, hopefully, never witness again. There were glimpses of Ali’s legendary “rope-a-dope’ technique” and his signature jabs but Frazier often wove his way out of Ali’s long reach, tiring and cornering him. And when Frazier went on the counter with his flurry of punches, Ali kept shaking his head, telling the audience that he hadn’t been broken. When he was knocked down by a Frazier punch in the last round that visibly shocked even the referee, Ali was back on his feet in three seconds. After the fight, Ali refused to stay overnight at the hospital for observation but Frazier, his face swollen and disfigured, had to be admitted for internal injuries. “That man,” Frazier said later, “can sure take some punches. I went to the country, back home, for some of the shots I hit him with.”
Frazier won comprehensively though. First, with a hook to Ali’s head in 11th round that had him tottering for the next 20 seconds. But bone-crushing was Frazier’s left hook at the start of the 15th round that sent Ali down, his head bouncing off the canvas like it was a trampoline. Ali had no problem beating the count but the bout was lost by then. It was a unanimous decision in favour of Frazier. “Both men won that night,” wrote Robert Lipsyte for Time.
Frazier was declared undisputed champion but the popular sympathy went Ali’s way. Three months later, the Supreme Court had reversed Ali’s 1967 conviction for evading compulsory military drafting. It allowed Ali to slowly find his feet in professional boxing, carving victories in the rematch against Frazier and George Foreman in “The Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974. And when he hastened Frazier’s retirement by winning the “Thrilla in Manila” in 1975, Ali entered the zenith of his popularity. It was the first time a bout was broadcast via continuous satellite signal by network television, making the trilogy garner billions of viewers and record-breaking revenues overall. There were no contenders left. Ali had finally become larger than life.