Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 11, 2021

The Night Everyone Was A Boxing Fan

It is all but impossible to imagine now, fifty years on. These days boxing is a fringe sport, the once-vaunted heavyweight division populated by no-name fighters and, like many other weight classes, frequently splintered by the completing claims of would-be titleholders, each recognized by one or two of an alphabet soup of sanctioning bodies. The sport’s long-favored means of reaching a broad audience, Pay-Per-View television, is now dominated by the faster and more vicious combat of cage fighting.

But half a century ago, on the evening of March 8, 1971, the attention of far more than just devoted boxing fans was centered on Madison Square Garden. Gotham’s great arena, perched atop what was then the recently relocated Penn Station, was the fourth venue to bear the MSG name and barely three years old. That night’s heavyweight title bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier was easily the biggest event held at the “new” Garden since its 1968 opening.

The capacity crowd included scores of ticketholders who had never attended a boxing match and likely never would again, with the count of celebrities and politicians the equal of any Broadway premiere. Frank Sinatra, in the midst of a short-lived retirement, was unable to procure a ticket so traded on his fame to garner a press pass, playing the role of photographer for Life Magazine for the evening and winding up in front of even the front-row seats that he had been unable to buy. Throughout the city, across the country, and around the globe, demand for the closed-circuit screening of the bout dwarfed all expectations, with a worldwide audience estimated at 300 million viewers.

It was promoted as “the fight of the century,” and while there were several boxing matches before and have been at least two since that also claimed the honorific, Ali-Frazier 1, as it would come to be known, stands alone as a bout worthy of that exalted title long after its final bell. That is true in part because unlike so many heavily promoted sporting events, this one lived up to its hype. Although 48 of the two undefeated boxers combined 57 professional matches had ended by knockout, the bout went the full 15 championship rounds. Ali dominated early, stinging his shorter opponent with repeated jabs to the face. But Frazier fought back, landing a sweeping hook to Ali’s jaw at the end of Round 3. The punch marked a shift in momentum, with Frazier becoming the aggressor through the middle rounds, as Ali appeared to tire, his early movement around the ring notably diminished.

For a moment early in Round 11, it looked like Frazier’s blows might have sent Ali to the canvas. But veteran referee Arthur Mercante Sr. quickly signaled “no knockdown,” as Ali had slipped on water that had spilled onto the ring near Frazier’s corner. But in the final three-minute set there was no doubt. Just when it appeared to many observers that Ali had rallied to close the scoring gap, another Frazier hook sent him down. While Ali was up by the count of four, for many who witnessed it the knockdown was and forever will be the bout’s decisive moment, even long after the release of the judges’ cards showed that the decision would have gone Frazier’s way, albeit narrowly, even if Ali had won the 15th.

Had the unanimous decision for Frazier been the end of the story, the match would have been memorable and the legacies of both fighters likely different. But Ali-Frazier 1 ranks atop so many lists of epic boxing battles because it was just the beginning. The pair met in the ring two more times. Their next rendezvous was just under three years later, again at Madison Square Garden, and this time it was Ali emerging victorious in the non-title bout. By that time Frazier had been humbled by George Foreman and Ali had suffered a second loss and a broken jaw at the hands of Ken Norton. To some it was a match between two boxers in their twilight.

But Ali’s victory was the springboard to a title bout against Foreman. Nine months later, on a steamy night in Zaire, Ali won his title back with a brilliant strategy in a fight most of the boxing media expected him to lose badly. The improbable victory – to everyone but Ali – paved the way for the rubber match against Frazier. One year later, in the even steamier Philippine capital, they were scheduled for a 15-round title bout. For 14 of those 15 the two battled as if their lives were at stake; indeed, Ali would later say the “Thrilla in Manila” was “the closest thing to death.” Late in the bout, Ali’s hammering to Frazier’s face began to close the challenger’s eyes so he could barely see. In the 13th an Ali right sent Frazier’s mouthpiece flying, and in the next round Ali pressed his advantage. Before the bell to start the final round sounded, Frazier’s cornermen signaled the referee that they had seen enough. The troika between Ali and Frazier, an indelible part of boxing history, was complete.

Finally of course, that first match between the two, on that long-ago March night, is historic because of its context. Ali was the underdog because he had been idled for almost four years by his refusal to be drafted into the military. In an America riven by race and the war in Vietnam, he was a hero to some and a pariah to many. Inevitably, in an easy characterization that was not entirely fair, Frazier became his antithesis to many fans and writers. The result of their first fight was cast as vindication for a certain point of view. But as Ali remained unbowed, quickly appearing on late night talk shows while Frazier was hospitalized, and, over time, as the mood of the country shifted, the loser according to the judges became the winner of hearts and minds.

Fifty years ago this week, Joe Frazier won the fight. But in the moment of defeat, Muhammad Ali began a journey that won the world. For while Frazier was one of the finest fighters of his generation, a boxer with outsized determination whose devastating left hook could send any opponent crashing to the canvas, it was Ali who grasped the larger context in which the fisticuffs inside the ring played out. Ali understood the power of sports to deliver a message, and he did so with bombast and braggadocio, but also with goodness and grace. Joe Frazier was a great fighter, but Muhammad Ali realized that only one fighter could be the Greatest.

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