Mar-8-1971: The Fight of the Century (Ali-Frazier I)
Two of the great heavyweight champions – Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. Both Olympic Gold Medal winners, they met three times in the ring and their first and last fight are included in Sports Illustrated’s Top 10 Fights of all time. Their first fight was dubbed the “Fight of the Century” and held in sold-out Madison Square Garden.
Ali stunned the boxing world in 1964 with his TKO upset of champ Sonny Liston. Ali immediately declared himself “The Greatest” and announced he “Shook Up the World.”
Ali defended his title 9 times before having it stripped in 1967 for his refusing induction to the draft in protest of the Vietnam War.
Frazier won a partial claim to the heavyweight crown in 1968 by beating Buster Mathis in a bout recognized by the athletic commissions of Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania as for the “world” championship title.
Frazier declined to participate in the WBA’s eight-man championship tournament which was won by Jimmy Ellis that year. Frazier and Ellis (24-0) fought to the unify the title in 1970 and Frazier won with a TKO in the 5th round.
In his first title defense later that year, Frazier knocked out light-heavyweight champion Bob Foster in the second round. Ali, who had won his first two bouts since reinstatement, would be next.
Fight of the Century
Ali-Frazier was the first meeting of two undefeated heavyweight champions and the last until Mike Tyson faced Michael Spinks in 1988.
Each fighter was guaranteed $2.6 million, the largest single payday for any athlete or even entertainer at the time. Interest in the fight rivaled that of the Super Bowl or World Cup and more people ended up watching it than had watched the Apollo moon landing two years earlier.
Frazier and Ali were initially friends. During Ali’s enforced three year lay-off from boxing for refusing to be drafted into the US Army, Frazier lent him money and testified before Congress and petitioned U.S. President Richard Nixon to have Ali’s right to box reinstated. Frazier supported Ali’s right not to serve in the army, saying “If Baptists weren’t allowed to fight, I wouldn’t fight either.”
However, in the build-up to their first fight, The Fight of the Century, Ali turned it into a “cultural and political referendum”, painting himself as a revolutionary and civil rights champion and Frazier as the white man’s hope, an “Uncle Tom” and a pawn of the white establishment. Ali successfully turned many black Americans against Frazier. Bryant Gumbel joined the pro-Ali, anti-Frazier bandwagon by writing a major magazine article that asked “Is Joe Frazier a white champion with black skin?” Frazier thought this was “a cynical attempt by Clay to make me feel isolated from my own people. He thought that would weaken me when it came time to face him in that ring. Well, he was wrong. It didn’t weaken me, it awakened me to what a cheap-shot son of a bitch he was.” He noted the hypocrisy of Ali calling him an Uncle Tom when his [Ali’s] trainer (Angelo Dundee) was white.
The fight itself became something of a symbol of the country. Leading up to the fight, Ali (who had denounced the Vietnam War) became a symbol of the anti-establishment movement. Meanwhile, Frazier became a symbol of the conservative, pro-war movement. In his autobiography, Frazier acknowledged that while he got an exemption from serving in Vietnam because he had a wife and kids, he would have had no problem serving his country had he been drafted, as it had been so good to him. . . .
On the evening of the match, Madison Square Garden had a circus-like atmosphere, with scores of policemen to control the crowd, outrageously dressed fans, and countless celebrities, from Norman Mailer and Woody Allen to Frank Sinatra, who, after being unable to procure a ringside seat, took photographs for Life magazine instead. Artist LeRoy Neiman painted Ali and Frazier as they fought. Burt Lancaster served as a color commentator for the closed-circuit broadcast. Though Lancaster had never performed as a sports commentator before, he was hired by the fight’s promoter, Jerry Perenchio, who was also a friend. The other commentators were play-by-play announcer Don Dunphy and boxing champion Archie Moore
According to referee Arthur Mercante, the following conversation took place in the ring:
- “You know, you’re in here with the God tonight” – Ali’s attempt to psyche out Frazier
- “If you are God, you’re in the wrong place tonight” – Frazier’s reply
Frazier won a unanimous decision that was cemented by his 15th round knockdown of Ali.
Ali was taken to the hospital immediately after the fight where he was found to have a severely swollen jaw (which was apparent in post-fight interviews). Frazier called upon Ali to fulfil his promise and crawl across the ring, but he didn’t. Ali called it a “white man’s decision” and insisted that he won.
Frazier had two successful title defenses in 1972 against Ron Stander and Terry Daniels, before losing to George Foreman in a second-round TKO in 1973.
Frazier fought Ali again in 1974 and lost in a unanimous decision. Nine months later Ali beat Foreman in the famous Rumble in the Jungle.
Ninety-one weeks later, they met again in Manilla in one of the first boxing match’s broadcast via satellite to a worldwide audience in what became known as the “Thrilla in Manilla” in which Ali won a 14th round TKO. See OCT 1-1975: THE GREATEST RIVALRY IN BOXING HISTORY CULMINATES WITH A THRILLA.
Joe Frazier died in 2011.