Ali and Frazier - Memories of the Fight of the Century
By Paul Strauss: Their history includes three great fights. I've always felt the most important was the first one that occurred March 8, 1971, when they were both undefeated and in their prime. It was billed as "The Fight of the Century". Muhammad Ali, the former undefeated heavyweight champion of the world, was 31-0 (25). Current champion Smokin Joe Frazier was 26-0 (23). The WBC and WBA titles were on the line. I remember it well. I was twenty-five years old with a beautiful wife and a four month old daughter. My father and a couple of my six brothers, and my good friend Dave were big fans and in attendance for a closed circuit presentation. There was no way we were going to miss this one. In fact, my father and I had seen all of the closed circuit fights of both men.
Article posted on 09.11.2011
In those days, if you couldn't attend the fight in person (in this case at Madision Square Garden), you had to buy a ticket for a closed circuit presentation in your area. It was long before PPV. The live presentation resembled going to a movie theatre. There was a huge projector and a big screen and, if memory serves me, it was important that an aisle stayed cleared in front of the projector. The atmosphere was different from that of a theater, though. It was less luxurious and usually held in a sparsely furnished armory or auditorium. We went to a local armory in our city. There was plenty of temporary seating in the form of folding chairs that were placed on the level floor area. Those seats were closest to the screen and the most expensive; but they were not the best, especially if your luck was running bad. When that was the case, then you were app to get a big palooka seated right in front of you. Or worse, you might get one of those twerps who jumps up every few seconds. The banked seats in the balcony were better, and that's where we eagerly went to watch. We climbed the grungy flight of concrete steps to our wooden seats. We were in the balcony on the left side, about half the length of the building back from the screen. They were great seats. .
It's almost impossible to describe the anticipation and tension that filled the air. You know how you feel when you buy a new car and get behind the wheel for the first time? Well, it was better than that, much better! It was much more physical. Even in our flyover city, the emotions were screaming for release, the adrenaline was flowing, and real fans in particular were experiencing an unbelievable high. We were walking on the balls of our feet, gliding along in some kind of euphoria, knowing that we were about to experience one of those "once in a life time" experiences.
All over the country, and probably the world, many of those in attendance were not really boxing fans. But, this "Fight of the Century" wasn't just a boxing match. It included all kinds of extra ingredients to spice it up. It had a record purse of $2.5 million for each fighter. Pre-fight build up included numerous newpaper and magazine articles, television appearances, and "two cents" given by everyone under the sun as to who they thought would win. One important reason it was such a big draw was it was truly an event.........not just a sporting event, but a social event, a world event, an historical event. Many of those in attendance were attending their first boxing match. It didn't matter. They felt they belonged because they knew the creme de la creme were going to be there, and therefore they wanted to be there too. Even Frank Sinatra the "Chairman of the Board" was there, but as a photographer for Life Magazine. He got some good shots too. The list of celebrities is too long to list, but when was the last time you can remember a mega movie star doing ringside color commentary? This night that spot was filled by the great actor Burt Lancaster.
Ali, who had been barred from fighting for three years was the anti-war, anti establishment hero of many, mostly college aged types. I was a Vietnam Era USN veteran, so Ali definitely wasn't my hero. Joe Frazier was the blue collar hero. He hadn't been drafted into the military, but he made it clear if he had been, he would have served because his country had been good to him. Opinions of boxing fans and experts about Ali had morphed over the years, just like his name. For many of the early years of his career, hard core fans and experts felt it was only a matter of time before the Louisville Lip was going to get his block knocked off. I was one of them. When Ali beat Sonny "The Big Bear" Liston, many of those people's opinions changed. Again, I was one of them. His hand and foot speed, reflexes, and punching accuracy were unbelievable. Up until that time, Liston was thought to be invincible, especially after he destroyed Floyd Patterson on two occasions. But when Cassius beat Liston, opinions changed.
Skeptics of an Ali's chances in "The Fight of the Century" thought he might have lost something in his three year absence. I thought he looked very good in his first two fights leading up to this big one. He TKO'd Jerry Quarry in three, and did what many thought impossible when he stopped Oscar Bonevena. Even the puncher Joe Frazier couldn't stop the Argentian. In fact, Joe scared the beegeebees out of his fans by getting dropped by Oscar before decisioning him in two fights Hence, many weren't buying into that lay off argument. I was one of them. Up until then, I didn't realize there was much more to Joe Frazier than just his left hook.
Before the fight, my friend Dave and I good naturedly debated who the victor would be. Dave was a former state highschool heavy weight wrestling champ, so he knew something about competition. He picked Frazier. I had boxed in the Navy and had won a minor title, so I arrogantly thought I knew more about the sport than most people. Even though I wasn't an Ali fan, I picked him. I felt Ali was just too big, fast and clever for a predictible slugger like Joe. .I soon learned Joe Frazier was much better than I had given him credit for. My father was too wise to be sucked into any kind of foolish bantering. His experiences with the sport went all the way back to Jack Dempsey and beyond, so in this case he knew both men were great fighters, and he was content in wating to see how things panned out.
Ali came into the ring wearing red colored trunks with white stripes. He looked to be in great shape, and appeared supremely confident. This was his element. The bigger the show, the more elaborate the stage, the better he liked it. There was no doubt in his mind that he was going to regain the title.......his title. He looked upon Joe as a pretender to the throne. He was the people's champion. Joe too looked great. One sportswriter described him as having a kind of glow to his body that can only be achieved by being in tremendous shape. He wore multi-colored green trunks with a yellow stripe. .
The fight exceeded even the greatest expectations. Ali came out fast, flicking his great jab, following occasionally with the right. He stayed out of range of Joe's left hook, not so much with leg movement, but more by pushing off. If Joe did manage to get in close, Ali would grab him behind the head and pull him in and down. Referee Arthur Mercante warned him about the move. Joe continued to bore in with his head bobbing and weaving, firing off hard shots to Ali's body. Ali got more flat-footed, and threw more hard shots. It appeared he was determined to take Joe out.
Already in the early rounds, Ali was landing some huge right hands, but Joe shook them off, using the counter punch opportunity to land his left hooks to Ali's head. Ali's theatrics were evident right away in the first round. Joe caught him at least three times with pretty good left hooks, but each time Ali looked to the crowd and shook his head, attempting to convince the fans the punches weren't hurting him. In the second round, Ali landed several hard punches; one was a particularily good one-two punch combination. Undaunted, Frazier continued to press, and landed the less showy, but equally hurtful body shots. For the first time in the fight Referee Mercante warned both fighters to quit talking. Announcer Don Dunphy said, "They have time for that!"
The fight continued with a similar pattern. Dave and I were continually elbowing each other and saying, "Did you see that?" Only seconds would pass, and it would happen again. We were getting bruised up too. Frazier was catching a lot of hard shots to the forehead and cheekbone areas of his face. Dunphy wondered, "How many of those punches can Frazier take?" Ali was being punished as well, but more to the body; although, Joe would surprise him at times with a good left or right to the head. Referee Mercante had to warn the two fighters again to "Quit talking!" Not surpisingly, Ali was doing all the holding. Referee Mercante seemed to have given up trying get him to stop grabbing Joe behind the head.
By the third round, many viewers joined Don Dunphy in wondering if Frazier could continue to absorb so much punishment. But, Joe seemed possessed. In a post-fight interview, the great Archie Moore described Frazier as a bulldog, unfazed by the punches, and unstoppable. Archie was right. Joe just kept boring in, pressing the attack. In the third round, he landed a clean left hook that hurt Ali. The former champ was forced to hold on again, and this time he was in no hurry to let go. Fortunately for him, the bell soon sounded to give him some relief.
By the fourth round, Ali was hitting Joe with everything. Multiple jabs, hooks off the jab, one-two's, lead rights, and uppercuts. Don Dunphy exclaimed, "Joe's taking a battering. If it were anyone else, they'd be on the floor." But, Joe just kept coming. He was getting rougher as well. He no longer was letting Ali grab and hold. He started shoving back hard. He also was capitalizing on those times when Ali would finish throwing a combination, only in hopes of grabbing Joe to prevent counters. But now when he reached out to grab, he was a little slower in doing so, and Joe was nailing him over the top of his out-stretched arms. Even though it was just the fourth round, both fighters were showing fatigue because the fight was so brutal. Evidence of Ali's fatigue came when he bent down instead of doing his usual snap away. It was a mistake. He bent right into one of Joe's left hooks.
In the fifth round, Ali was noticeably slowing. Frazier unleashed a vicious series of body shots. Ali tried to clown again by stiff arming Joe, but it was a mistake. Joe got in close and landed a great left hook to the head, at which time the great Don Dunphy said, "Ali had the fun, but Frazier landed the punch!" Mind games have always been a big part of Ali's fight plan, and he deployed such tactics again at this point in the fight. He shook his head again, trying to sway the crowd, Then he would tap Joe's head in close, push him, stiff arm, and so forth trying hard to make it look like he was in charge.
By the time the ninth round came, Ali looked like he was going downhill fast. Joe was landing more and more hard shots, and he was wisely resting at the right times inside. But, just when it looked like Ali was in real trouble, back he came. First he landed a good short left shovel hook. It stopped Joe in his tracks. Ali immediately seized the moment, and let loose with several more hard shots. Now Joe was the one who was hurt. Again it was fortunate for the hurt fighter that the bell brought some relief. This time it was Joe's turn to a gesture for proof he wasn't hurt. As he walked back to his corner, he waived his right arm from high to low at Ali, like he was saying you're nothing. You didn't hurt me.
In the tenth round, Joe stayed close. Ali continued to tie him up, but Joe was getting some good shots through. There was a brief moment in the round when Joe seemed to have gotten something in his eye, and he yelled to his corner. But, the action resumed with Joe grunting loudly with his shots as he tried to power up more and more. Inside he seemed to start using his left elbow a bit more to keep Ali from leaning on him. Ali was far from done though, and he continued to batter Frazier with combinations.
In the eleventh round, Joe got through with a huge left hook. The punch buckled Ali's legs. There was no pretending this one didn't hurt. That and the accumulation of all those body shots ripped away the "float" from this "butterfly". After one particularly hard right hand to Ali's left kidney, Dunphy said, "Ooooh, that must have hurt." Was he kidding? The sound of it even hurt! Ali's vulnerabliltiy increased, and a lumped up Joe Frazier could sense his chances for victory were increasing.
In the fifteenth round, "Smokin Joe" Frazier landed one of the most sensational left hooks of all times. It crashed into Ali's jaw, and down he went, flat on his back. He beat the count, but he was in awful shape. Frazier jumped on him with hard shots to the body and head. At least four more clean shots got through, and Ali looked like he might just wilt to the canvas. But, Joe was tired too, and he couldn't keep up the attack as much as he wished. Ali managed one more flurry, which was once again broken up by a clean Frazier counter shot. With thirty seconds or more left in the fight, the fans at the Garden, and even where we were, started to clap. Their appreciation for the two fighters was evident. It came as no surprise when the official scoring was announced. Frazier had won a UD. Judge Artie Aidala scored it 9-6. Judge Bill Recht had it 11-4, and Referee Arthur Mercante scoed it 8-6.
There was no" I told you so" with this fight. This was the kind of fight that caused you to be temporarily speechless. When you regained control, the first thing that came out of your mouth was, "What a helleva fight!" It didn't seem possible for two human beings to be able to take that kind of punishment. Some new fans were certainly made. We already loved the sport, but our enthusiasm for it was undeniably bumped up a notch. The walk out of the armory to the parking lot was full of nods and smiles from strangers, and comments like, "Can you believe it!"
Thanks Smokin Joe. It definitely was your night. Thanks for the memories (and you too Muhammad). On that night, Joe was the greatest. May he rest in peace.
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