Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Fight of the Century

Forty years ago tonight, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali met in the much–anticipated "Fight of the Century."

Technically, I guess you could call it the first "Fight of the Century" — at least in my lifetime.

There have been other fights that have been known as the "Fight of the Century" — the 1910 bout between Jack Johnson and James Jefferies was known by that name, and so was the 1938 fight between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling — but most modern fight fans would tell you it can only apply to a showdown between Ali and Frazier.

Ali and Frazier met three times in the 1970s, and their first bout was on March 8, 1971. I guess some folks would say it was the best of the three — but, to reach that conclusion (when the third fight was the famous "Thrilla in Manila"), one was required (practically) to be pro–Frazier and/or anti–Ali.

It was, after all, the only one of the three fights that Frazier won.

It was an epic showdown. Both men were undefeated as professional fighters. Frazier was the defending champion. Ali was a former champion.

In 1971, though, if one was pulling for Frazier, it said more about that person's politics — specifically, one's position on Vietnam — than anything else. It was as telling as the length of one's hair or the style of one's clothes.

Ali had served a suspension from pro boxing in the very prime of his career for refusing to serve in the military during the war. He had been stripped of his title in April 1967 and then allowed to return to pro boxing in October 1970.

Frazier, on the other hand, was a darling of the pro–war elements in American politics in those days. He said that he didn't serve in the military because he was a father, but he would have no problem serving if called upon to do so.

Before he retired from boxing, Ali became the first man to win the heavyweight championship three separate times. He is considered by most boxing observers to be one of the greatest heavyweights — if not the greatest — of all time.

But, in 1971, he was really no more significant than any other man who had held the heavyweight title at one time — just more flamboyant than most, certainly more controversial than most. He had fought twice since 1967, and he was being thrust into the ring to face the defending heavyweight champion, a fighter who was known to be a punishing puncher.

It was often suggested that he hadn't had enough time to get into peak condition for a shot at the title. That was a fair assessment, I suppose.

It certainly was better than many of the things I heard people say about Ali at the time, that's for sure.

Perhaps no challenger up to that time had been as reviled as Ali. I've heard that Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, took a lot of abuse while he held the title (but not, I believe, before that time) whereas Ali was always a lightning rod, whether he was the champion or the challenger.

Whether his surname was the one he chose (Ali) or the one to which he was born (Clay).

In 1971, there was a lot of residual anger directed at him from those who supported the war in Vietnam — and resented it when Ali refused to be drafted into service.

In hindsight, I guess the irony is that even those who opposed the war weren't necessarily supporting Ali. My mother, for example, was strongly opposed to the war, but she didn't particularly care for Ali, either.

She was a supporter of civil rights, though, so I'm sure she sympathized when Ali said, "I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me nigger."

As I recall, Frazier said nothing that was in the least bit incendiary — which was a big part of his appeal to conservative Americans.

I guess the Vietnam angle spilled over into other areas. Although both men were black, Ali was something of a champion in the black community — whereas Frazier was often seen as the "white man's champion."

Tickets to the fight sold for $150 — a figure that, as Tim Dahlberg of the Associated Press remembers, was an "astonishing sum" at a time when the minimum hourly wage in America was $1.60.

There was no pay–per–view in those days. For those who were willing to part with the cash, one could see what was called "closed–circuit" coverage of a big fight at selected movie theaters. And there was no bigger event in the boxing world than Ali–Frazier I.

I don't know what tickets to closed–circuit venues went for in those days, but it was simply out of the question for me. I wanted to see the fight, but I just couldn't.

Years later, I finally saw a tape of it, a tape that included the pre–fight stuff that the people who bought the closed–circuit tickets saw that evening. Fight Night brought all the celebrities and publicity hounds to Madison Square Garden, the folks who cared more about being seen than what they were seeing — even if what they were seeing was historic — and the paparazzi of the day were only too happy to oblige.

I remember that night vividly. There was radio coverage — but each round description was broadcast after a delay, and the fact that it was delayed was announced before each round began (I always assumed that was to discourage gambling) — and I remember reclining on my parents' bed and listening on the radio in their bedroom to the announcers' descriptions of Ali and Frazier trading blows.

It was a chilly night, and, at one point, my mother, who had been listening to the fight with my brother and me, suggested that she fix mugs of hot chocolate for us. The image of the three of us sitting around that radio and the memory of that warm, chocolatey liquid insulating me against that early March evening while I listened to the fight will always be with me.

That's one of the things about my memory of that evening that is so special for me now. Mom enjoyed some sports, but she had no real interest in boxing — and, as I said, she wasn't too keen on Ali, either. On that evening, though, she listened to the radio broadcast with my brother and me — and she talked about it with us. Not because it mattered to her, but because it mattered to us.

When we started listening to the fight, I just knew we were in it for the long haul. Maybe boxing fans who were brought up during the Mike Tyson era can't understand, but Ali and Frazier always gave fans their money's worth. No first– or second–round knockouts whenever these guys were in the ring together.

I guess the trend was established 40 years ago tonight. Ali and Frazier went the distance, 15 rounds, before Frazier was declared the winner by unanimous decision.

The speculation by the radio announcers was that Ali was trailing on the judges' scorecards as the men began that 15th round, and he probably needed a knockout — or at least a couple of knockdowns — to prevail. The men had been about even through the first 11 rounds, they said, but Frazier seemed to seize control with a shot late in the 11th round that might have knocked Ali down if not for the ropes that caught him and kept him on his feet.

As I listened to the final round, it occurred to me that it was already over and both Ali and Frazier, as well as all the folks who were in Madison Square Garden that night, knew the outcome. But I didn't. Not yet.

About 30 seconds into that 15th round, Ali was knocked down for what may have been the first time in his boxing career, pro or amateur. Already viewed by many as arrogant, he had come into the fight with red tassles dangling from each ankle, almost defying Frazier to knock him off his feet. The sight of those tassles briefly occupying the area where Ali's face had been must have seemed like justification to his detractors.

I can't describe the sound of the announcers as they reported the blow Frazier had delivered and how it knocked a startled Ali on his back. There was an excitement in their voices that I had never heard before.

It was many years before I saw a tape of the fight, but when I saw Ali knocked on his back and those tassles flying wildly in the air, it looked exactly as I had always pictured it. Frazier, who sometimes seemed to be dragging in the late stages of the fight, appeared to be revived by that and hammered away at Ali following a mandatory eight–count, landing a punch midway through the round that should have dropped Ali to the canvas again.

Ali didn't go down again, but the damage had been done — in more ways than one. Both men went to the hospital after the fight — there were even rumors, for a time, that Frazier had died. Ali swore that he would retire from boxing if those rumors turned out to be true.

Fortunately, they were not.

As a child, I always felt that Frazier and Ali really didn't like each other. Ali was constantly calling Frazier names and suggesting that Frazier wasn't very smart, and "Smokin' Joe" really seemed to smolder whenever Ali spoke to him in public.

A couple of decades later, when NBC brought the two of them together to watch a tape of the fight and reflect on that event, the two men seemed to patch things up. Ali, who had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease several years earlier, said it had all been in fun, and Frazier said there were no hard feelings.

Neither was there any doubt who won the fight.

George Willis writes in the New York Post that Ali eventually admitted that Frazier had been the better fighter that night.

"I watched the fight over and over trying to find excuses, saying they robbed me or didn't like me because of this or that," Ali said, "but I watched the fight, and the first fight he did win."

1 comment:


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