Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Fight of the Century, Part II

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought three times.

The first was known as the "Fight of the Century." Frazier was the defending world champion, and he defeated Ali on that occasion. It was Frazier's only victory in three bruising confrontations.

The third fight, the "Thrilla in Manila," was fought a year and a half after the second fight, which took place in New York's Madison Square Garden 40 years ago tonight.

Neither man was champion on this night 40 years ago. Frazier had lost his title a year earlier to George Foreman, and the winner of the second fight figured to get a shot at Foreman's crown.

In boxing lore, the second fight between the two men is seen as the least significant of the three, but I disagree with that assessment. It was scheduled for 12 rounds, and it went the distance — no quick decision. Ali was the winner by unanimous decision, but that does not mean it was a lopsided fight.

It is an exercise in futility to rank the Ali–Frazier fights. It was a great rivalry, and each fight had its unique traits.

I always believed Ali–Frazier II was not the least significant of the three fights. True, no title was on the line, but the winner was expected to get a shot at the heavyweight championship — and, in fact, it did lead to a title shot for Ali later that year.

What's more, Ali cashed in on his opportunity, defeating Foreman in the famed "Rumble in the Jungle" in October.

But that was still nine months in the future. On this night in 1974, Ali got off to the kind of start that was typical for him — scoring enough points to be the unanimous winner of the first two rounds. That came as no real surprise to veteran fight watchers. Frazier always was a slow starter.

Frazier — who was thought to be seriously hurt near the end of the second round — began to score some points with the judges, winning the third round and doing well enough in the fourth to get two of the judges to score the round a draw.

The fifth and sixth rounds went to Ali, then the seventh and eighth went to Frazier. Ali was the unanimous winner of the ninth and 11th rounds while Frazier won split decisions in the 10th and 12th rounds.

It was a unanimous decision — all three judges had Ali winning — but it was far from unanimous as far as all observers were concerned. Sports writer Red Smith of the New York Times, for example, thought Frazier had won a narrow victory.

The rivalry had what any good rivalry should have — a healthy dose of good old–fashioned hate. At least, it appeared to have plenty of hate coming from the Frazier corner. Prior to their rematch, the men reviewed the tape of the first fight at the ABC studio, during which Ali called Frazier "ignorant," and a fight broke out in the studio.

That might have been a show. Ali was known to be a showman, and Frazier might have been persuaded to play along.

But, if it was a show, it was mighty convincing.

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