March 8, 1971 was arguably the most magical evening in sports history. On this date, 40 years ago, two undefeated heavyweight champions squared off at the mecca of boxing, Madison Square Garden, in what was billed the “Fight of the Century.”
Muhammad Ali entered the fight with a 31-0 record with 25 KOs, while “Smokin” Joe Frazier was 26-0 with 23 KOs.
Frazier held the belts but Ali was still the "peoples’ champion." Ali was seeking to reclaim that which was stripped by the United States government and the boxing authorities—his championship belts.
In 1967, Ali refused military induction. His controversial stance led to his forced 42-month exile from boxing.
Despite being rusty from the long layoff, Ali won two tune-up fights before climbing into the ring with Frazier. He cut Jerry Quarry to shreds in winning by a TKO in the third round, and he knocked out Italian brawler Oscar Bonavena in the final round of their fight.
Ali looked surprisingly sharp against Quarry, but he was rather lethargic against Bonavena.
Meanwhile, Frazier was a primed-and-ready fighting machine. Frazier was methodically dismantling his opponents with his famous "Philadelphia left hook."
Before Ali was stripped of his livelihood, he was clearly the best fighter in the world. He was so great, he literally ran out of worthy opponents to fight.
The competition was so scarce, Ali even contemplated fighting 7' tall giant Wilt Chamberlain prior to being stripped of his title.
Leading up to the “Fight of the Century,” Ali was in rare from with his mouth: He was blasting Frazier with a ferocious barrage of verbal abuse. Due to Ali’s sharp tongue and the societal conditions, the fight had racial and political undertones.
Ali was a giant figure who was against the Vietnam War; he stood up against the United States government and prevailed.
Ali labeled himself as the spokesperson for African Americans. He portrayed himself as the poster boy of black-ness.
Ali embraced the nation of Islam, changed his name and freely told "White America" how he felt. He consistently boasted of his beauty while simultaneously declaring Frazier “ugly.”
In the African-American community, Ali represented those who had no platform or voice. In short, he was adored by African Americans and hated by a large segment of White America.
Ali characterized Frazier as an “Uncle Tom” who embraced Christianity and who supported the war. Frazier, though African American, was adopted by working-class whites who wanted him to close Ali’s big mouth.
Frazier often refused to acknowledge Ali’s new name; he continued to call him Cassius Clay. That infuriated Ali, yet Frazier continued to refer to his opponent by his old name.
The media portrayed Ali as the loudmouthed Muslim who denounced the war, while Frazier was depicted as the God-fearing Christian who represented American values.
Ali’s ranting and Frazier’s unwillingness to call Ali by his new name created obvious friction between the two fighters, thus creating tremendous energy before they would ultimately come to blows.
The stage was set for one of the most anticipated spectacles in all of sports. The crowd was electric and loud. The crowd was so noisy that most at ringside couldn’t hear the introduction of the fighters.
Everybody who was anybody was in attendance. Diana Ross, Frank Sinatra, Ted Kennedy, Walt Frazier and Woody Allen were there, just to name a few.
It was time to brawl.
In the early rounds, Ali was on his toes, dancing and delivering blistering jabs to Frazier’s forehead along with right-hand leads.
Frazier kept coming forward as usual by bobbing and weaving his head, as he looked to land that lethal left hook.
As the fight got to the middle rounds, the fight was fairly even. Ali—who coined the phrase “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”—was still stinging, but his floating had subsided.
Frazier began landing his left hooks to the body and Ali’s right jaw. Ali fought from the ropes to conserve energy.
Midway through the 11th round, Frazier landed a bodacious left hook to Ali’s head that sent him reeling against the ropes. Ali was clearly rubbery legged, but Frazier surprisingly failed to move in for the kill. He allowed Ali to regain his senses going into the 12th round.
Ali remarkably resumed pummeling Frazier with jabs and right-hand leads, shellacking Frazier for the next two rounds.
Frazier was slightly ahead on all three scorecards entering the 15th round. In my opinion, it was an even fight.
I did not attend the fight, nor am I old enough to remember the bout, but I own the DVD. I’ve watched it enough times to formulate a solid opinion.
As the 15th round started, Ali was circling to his left when he nailed Frazier with a left uppercut. As they broke from a brief clinch, Ali sought to throw a right-hand lead, but Frazier landed a left hook that could have knocked down the side of a brick building.
Ali fell to the canvas, only to get up within three seconds to finish the round strongly.
Frazier won in a unanimous decision. The fight exceeded everyone’s expectations.
Frazier went to the hospital for an extended stay while Ali sported only a swollen right jaw.
After the fight, there were rumors Frazier had died because of the severe beating he took from Ali—both eyes were nearly shut and his forehead was swollen with lumps from Ali’s jabs.
“The Fight of the Century” reminds me of what boxing used to be and how horrible the game is today.
Boxing is a sport that’s currently in shambles. Today, there are very few great rivalries to speak of, let alone great fighters.
Therefore, I easily declare the “Fight of the Century” to be the greatest fight and sporting event of all time.