Monday, March 8, 2021

March 8th, 1971 ... ALI vs FRAZIER

It was billed as The Fight Of The Century …

Two Undefeated Heavyweight Champions, squaring off against one other for the very first time, as Muhammad Ali attempted to reclaim the crown that was stripped from him 3 ½ years earlier for refusal to enter into The Armed Forces.

Ali (then fighting under his real name … or, as he soon began to refer to it, his “slave name,” Cassius Clay) became Heavyweight Champion of the World when he knocked out Sonny Liston on February 25th, 1964.  (He would officially announce his new name as Muhammad Ali after winning the heavyweight title.)

He had previously won a gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics and, once turning pro, built his reputation as a loud-mouthed, brash, cocky young man who used to write poetry and even released a single and spoken word album that charted … he would predict the round he would knock out his next opponent and brag about his great speed and how pretty he was … “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” … dazzling us with The Ali Shuffle in the ring … and it was entertaining as hell.

After winning the crown, he successfully defended it nine times … five times in 1966 alone!  He never hid from any worthy opponents … and knocked out Sonny Liston in the first round of their rematch in 1965.  (He would also knock out former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson that year in what many called a punishing display.)

On April 28th, 1967, he was officially stripped of his crown for refusing induction into The Armed Forces, sighting his religious beliefs, effectively invoking “conscientious objector” status.  (“I ain’t got no quarrel with no Viet Cong.”)  His boxing license was immediately suspended making him ineligible to fight in The United States.  When he was indicted ten days later (May 8th), he was released on $5000 bail and told that he could not leave The United States and his passport was confiscated.

In his absence, a new Heavyweight Champion had to be declared … and a series of “play-off bouts” were organized in order to determine just who that should be.

Smokin' Joe Frazier was another Olympic Champion, winning the boxing gold medal in 1964.  He was a strong, punishing boxer from Philadelphia who punched "from the inside" and just kept on comin’ at his opponents, wearing them down with his unrelenting persistence … he won six bouts in 1967 alone and, by the time he faced Ali in 1971, he was already 26-0 with 23 knock-outs.  (Ali came into the bout 31-0 with 25 KO's.)

In elimination rounds to declare a new boxing champion in Ali’s absence, Frazier knocked out both Buster Mathis and Jimmy Ellis to take the vacated crown, unifying boxing authorities as the new Heavyweight World Champion.

Meanwhile, Ali continued to tour The United States doing speaking engagements at a wide variety of colleges, earning (in many cases) as much money as he would have fighting professionally.  Behind the scenes, his team of lawyers continued to work his appeal, a case that would ultimately find itself before The Supreme Court a few years later. 

Unfortunately, in the meantime, Ali lost 3 ½ years of his career in exile, stripped in the prime of his career.  There is no way to even begin to measure the type of boxing record he may have compiled during that time.  (Ali never faulted Frazier for taking the title in his absence, acknowledging that Joe fought the best that were out there … “except for me” … to legitimately win the title under the ground rules present at the time.)

However, as now one of the most famous … and popular … people in the world, Ali declared himself “The People’s Champion” … and, in fact, he was.  No “pretender to the throne” could unseat him in the minds of his fans … and he vowed to come back to the ring someday (as soon as he could legally do so) and defend his title and his honor again.

Atlanta granted Ali a boxing license and, after a couple of “warm-up” bouts against Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena in 1970, a title fight against Joe Frazier was scheduled.

The Ali-Frazier fight on March 8th, 1971, held at Madison Square Garden, was a closed circuit tv bonanza. Celebrities lined the seats ringside.  (Frank Sinatra was commissioned as the fight's official photographer for Life Magazine!)

Both fighters were guaranteed $2.5 million, the highest purse ever for a heavyweight bout.  Each was offered a smaller guarantee of $1.5 million plus a percentage of the gross … some say as much as 35% … but they turned the offer down in favor of the sure thing.  Speculation today is that each fighter could have walked away with about $9 million instead, had they opted for the percentage deal.  $9 million dollars in 1971 money is worth about $58 million in 2020 funds.  Ouch!)  The fight was beamed via satellite to 35 countries around the world.

My Dad and I watched this fight at the now long-gone Hillside Movie Theater, the first of many we would watch together over the years (including the ridiculous bout Ali had with Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki, an embarrassing display, not to mention a tremendous risk for the man most of the world considered to be “The Greatest” Heavyweight Champion of All Time, who came off looking like an “Anything For A Buck” kind of guy with a decision like this … a clown rather than a king.)  We just couldn’t wait for Howard Cosell to show it on ABC’s Wide World Of Sports … we had to see it live.  (As it turned out, Cosell wasn’t allowed to show the fight in its entirety for years … just photo stills were shown the following weekend instead … including the memorable shot of Ali being knocked down in the 15th round.)

It was a punishing battle … Ali was taken to the hospital for the first time after the fight … but was released after evaluation.  Joe Frazier, on the other hand, would be hospitalized for the better part of three weeks … although it was never fully disclosed why … giving good credence to the old fight expression “You shoulda seen the other guy!”  (Hypertension and a kidney infection are two complications most often associated with Frazier’s extended hospital stay)

Still, there was genuine concern that the "winner" of the fight ... and the title ... seemed to have received the worst of it in the ring that night.

As for a boxing play-by-play, Ali won the first two rounds on all of the judges’ score cards … but then began clowning around a bit, taunting Frazier and shaking off his punches with a “You can’t hurt me / Is that all you’ve got” attitude.  But Frazier’s body punches were wearing Ali down, especially after the third and fourth rounds, which Frazier won unanimously on all three scorecards.  (Little did any of us know it at the time, but Ali was already trying out his "rope-a-dope" strategy, trying to run Frazier out of gas and then finishing each round with a rapid flurry of punches to make it appear that he had been in control for the entire round.)  

The judges weren’t deceived, however, and most of the rounds beginning with Round 3 went to Frazier.  (Frazier won rounds 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8.)  Ali refused to sit down between rounds in those early rounds, trying to get inside Frazier’s head as not being tired with plenty of stamina left to go … but it was clear that he wasn’t moving as much and fighting much more flat-footed.

Now it was Frazier taunting Ali … both fighters were warned several times throughout the bout by the referee to stop talking.  Frazier kept coming in close and attacking Ali’s head and body, smiling the whole time while doing it.  Ali had predicted that he would knock Frazier out in the 6th Round … but that round belonged to Joe Frazier all the way.

In Round 7, Ali started playing to the crowd, inciting them to chant “Ali! Ali! Ali!”  Ali looked much stronger this round, landing several punches to Joe Frazier’s head … but Frazier was connecting with much harder punches to Ali’s body.  Ali was spending much more time against the ropes, waving Frazier to “come on in” and then shaking off any punishment that Joe delivered.

In Round 9, the crowd started shouting “Joe! Joe! Joe!” as Frazier continued to punish Ali’s body against the ropes.  Ali did manage to bloody Joe’s nose this round, however, and won the round on all three scorecards after landing a flurry of punches just before the bell.  However, by this point, Frazier was already ahead by a score of 15-12, even with Ali taking all three points in Round 9.

At the start of Round 10, Frazier had developed a welt over his eye.  Both men appeared tired and were missing with more punches.  Even the punches that were landing didn’t have the intensity of earlier in the fight … but Joe Frazier continued to wear Muhammad Ali’s body down during the course of this round.

In Round 11, the crowd started chanting “Ali! Ali! Ali!” again, perhaps in an effort to spur the former champion on.  Ali slipped on the canvas early in the round, but it was NOT a knock down.  This time when Ali retreated to the corner, Frazier came in hard with punches to the head.  At one point, it was evident that Ali’s knees buckled … but he still held on to finish the round.  Frazier didn’t let up and soon the crowd was shouting for Joe again as Ali seemed to be staggering around the ring, very unsure of himself.  The bell sounded in time for Ali to stagger back to his corner, visibly shaken up after the intensity of this round.  His doctor did a quick examination during the short break in the action.

Frazier came on strong again in Round 12, laughing at Ali.  By Round 13, Ali’s handlers were yelling at him to pour it on … it was getting late and the general consensus was that he was most likely behind on points.  Both men were obviously tired during this round but despite all the egging on from Ali’s corner, Frazier still took this round.

Ali had a pretty good Round 14, landing several punches to Frazier’s now very puffy face … but Round 15 would be the telling round as Frazier dropped him to the canvas with a solid left hook.

Ali was back up on his feet by the count of four but was held to the mandatory eight count before the fight was resumed.  His eyes were glassy and he again seemed disoriented.  The right side of his face was swollen and there was speculation that his jaw may have been broken.  (Actually, that wouldn’t happen until the Ken Norton fight a few years later!)

When the points were tallied, Joe Frazier was declared the winner by a unanimous decision … the judges’ cards read 9-6-0 Frazier, 11-4-0 Frazier and 8-6-1(even) – Frazier, for a total of 28-16-1 overall.

Joe Frazier had won the fight in a hard-fought battle and retained the heavyweight title ... and Ali had notched his first loss.

On June 28, 1971 … 50 months to the day … The US Supreme Court overturned the decision and Ali was officially allowed to travel the world again in pursuit of reclaiming the title that was stripped from him four years earlier.

And, despite the loss to Joe Frazier, Ali kept fighting, winning ten straight fights between 1971 and 1973,  before losing to Ken Norton, who broke Ali’s jaw in their first battle.  (Ali would win the rematch six months later to vindicate his loss.)  Meanwhile, Frazier wasn’t offering Ali the chance to do the same for the title, making him wait ANOTHER 3 ½ years after their title bout.  (I don’t know that either fighter wanted to go through that kind of punishment again … but their names were golden … and a HUGE payday was guaranteed for whenever they decided to fight again.)

However, on January 22nd, 1973, George Foreman knocked Frazier down SIX TIMES in the first two rounds before the fight was stopped and he was declared the new Heavyweight Champion of the World.  He seemed invincible, knocking out his previous eight opponents with devastating blows in either the first or second round, and amassing an undefeated record of 38-0.

Ali and Frazier would square off again on January 28th, 1974, in a non-title bout, Frazier having lost his crown to George Foreman the year before.  The drawing power of their two names was unprecedented … and once again each fighter would earn a record purse for a non-title fight.  (Word is they each received another $2.5 million of their efforts.) 

This time around, Ali would win the fight by a unanimous decision.   

Ali would reclaim his title when he knocked out George Foreman on October 30th, 1974 in Zaire, Africa.

With their roles now reversed, Ali-Frazier III took place as “The Thrilla In Manila” on October 1, 1975.  Ali was again declared the winner, this time by TKO in the 14th round.

Most would agree that Ali-Frazier III was the best of the bunch … and perhaps the greatest single fight of two champions in boxing history.  Frazier's Corner Man Eddie Futch refused to let Joe leave his corner after the 14th Round, throwing in the towel for an Ali TKO … but after the fight Ali said Frazier quit just before he was about to.  It was the most grueling battle in either fighter’s career … both men took untold punishment during the 14 Round battle … but this landmark boxing trilogy all started with this first fight held March 8th of 1971.  Ali lost for the very first time … but never gave up, reclaiming the crown two more times before hanging things up for good in 1981.

Although Joe Frazier would never regain the crown, Ali won it for an unprecedented third time after first losing to Leon Spinks on February 15th, 1978, and then beating Spinks exactly six months later (August 15th, 1978) to reclaim the title.  He successfully defended that title once more against Larry Homes in 1980, a fight Ali was SURE to lose … but didn’t … and then, after losing to Trevor Berbick in 1981, officially announced his retirement.  (Holmes would win the heavyweight title later that year by beating Leon Spinks.)

There is no doubt that both Ali and Frazier respected each other’s abilities in the ring … and acknowledged each other as fierce opponents.  There were times when they seemed to act as friends, once their fights were behind them … but the inside track says that Joe Frazier NEVER liked Ali, or the way he talked down to him and belittled him in the media.  Truth is, it wasn’t very respectful … but a lot of this was just Ali’s way of drumming up interest in the fight, trash-talking his opponent, just as he had been doing for years.

Ali retired with a record of 56 wins and 5 losses.  37 of those wins came by way of a knock-out.

Joe Frazier retired after his rematch with George Foreman, a fight he lost in the 5th round.  His final record was 32 wins and 4 losses.  One fight (against Floyd Cummings in 1981) was ruled a draw.

LAST WORDS:  After The Thrilla in Manila, both fighters acknowledged their respect for each other …

JOE FRAZIER:  We were gladiators.  I didn’t ask no favors of him and he didn’t ask none of me.  I don’t like him, but I got to say, in the ring, he was a man.  In Manila, I hit him punches, those punches, they’d of knocked a building down.  And he took ‘em.  He took ‘em and he came back, and I got to respect that part of the man.  He was a fighter.  He shook me in Manila; he won.

MUHAMMAD ALI:  I don’t think two big men ever fought fights like me and Joe Frazier.  One fight, maybe … but three times … we were the only ones.  Of all the men I fought in boxing, Sonny Liston was the scariest, George Foreman was the most powerful, Floyd Patterson was the most skilled as a boxer … but the roughest and toughest was Joe Frazier.  He  brought out the best in me, and the best fight we fought was in Manila.  That fight, I could feel something happening to me … something different from what I’d felt in fights before.  And God blessed me that day.  He blessed me many times and that fight in Manila was one of them.  It was like I took myself as far as I could go, and then God took me the rest of the way.

So I’m sorry, Joe Frazier … I’m sorry I hurt him.  Joe Frazier is a good man.  I couldn’t have done what I did without him and he couldn’t have done what he did without me.  And if God ever calls me to a holy war, I want Joe Frazier fighting beside me.

Ali described his third fight with Joe Frazier as "the closest to dying" he had ever been.  At the end of the 14th Round, he asked his corner men to cut off his gloves, but his longtime trainer Angelo Dundee ignored him.  That short delay paid dividends when Frazier's handler, Eddie Futch, stopped the fight just seconds later.  Despite Frazier's protests to allow him to continue, Futch told him "It's all over.  No one will forget what you did here today" ... and no one ever has.  (kk)