Open Mic: Frazier V. Ali, Superfight #1: Joe Faced Much More Than a Fighter

Dave WhippmanCorrespondent IJune 18, 2008

As a Brit, I'm limited as to what I can mention as a great sporting achievement. American football and baseball are about as understandable to me as quantum mechanics: and most of the readers here would feel the same about cricket or soccer.

So I zero in on boxing, and Joe Frazier's achievement in defeating Muhammad Ali in March 1971.

It could be argued that since the bookies made Joe a slight favourite for the match, it hardly ranks as a sporting upset. And Frazier's detractors will point out that by then, after 3 years out of the ring, Ali was perhaps—just slightly—past his absolute best.

But my contention is that very few other heavyweights in history could have defeated Ali as he fought that night. Neither could Frazier, without superb conditioning, implacable courage, and total concentration. He had all three.

Concentration not just during the match - when some of Ali's work was so heartbreakingly brilliant that any other fighter but Joe would have become discouraged—but in the months preceding. The hostility towards Joe was as thick as poison gas. Ali was the darling—not just of black America, but of every white liberal. In their eyes, Frazier was the Uncle Tom, the government mercenary sent to assassinate a hero. And never mind the facts: such as the young Frazier being sacked from his job on a Carolina farm because he defended a black worker against the white farmer. (Strange behaviour for a white man's lackey.) Another conveniently-forgotten fact: despite shunning the Black Muslims, Frazier had supported Ali’s right to be allowed to box again.

Joe's style was similar to Marciano's, but we're always told that he wasn't quite in Rocky's class. Maybe, maybe not...But can anyone tell me when Marciano had to fight an opponent as popular as Ali; an opponent where it just wasn't in the script for him to win? And please, nobody say "Joe Louis." Louis was loved, yes: but he wasn't backed by dangerous politico-religious gangsters, and he never rode the crest of an anti-establishment wave as Ali did on that night. Talk about an unholy alliance - Norman Mailer and Elijah Muhammad!

Most other boxers would have let the pressure get to them. Especially since the Ali legend was utterly intact, 3 years' inactivity or not. Ali was undefeated. He'd looked terrific in his comeback fight against Quarry; less so against Bonavena, true—but then, who EVER looked good against the Argentinian?

Over the years, the Ali revisionists have claimed that Frazier was actually outpointed that night. I can only say that both judges and the referee scored it Joe's way. In truth, the dodgy scoring came later,  in the twilight of Ali's career, and it worked in his favour, such as in his third fight against Ken Norton, when both his opponent and the crowd were sure Norton had clinched it.

I'm not trying to take a cheap shot at Ali. He was, unquestionably,  a phenomenal boxer. He was—and is—loved here in England. And it doesn't feel good to be implying criticism of a man in his current state of health. But, looking back nearly four decades, I have to contrast Ali's theatricals—now so tediously copied throughout sports—with Frazier's workmanlike approach. Politics? The white liberals loved Ali, but, at that time, he espoused a political organization that hated all whites, including them. Frazier wasn't white, and didn't pretend to be or want to be. He just wasn't a Black Muslim either.

But, for a moment, forget politics. Maybe, in purely boxing terms, Ali really was the Greatest. But Frazier certainly achieved something great on that March night in 1971.