By Lenn Robbins
Back in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s when boxers, trainers and sports writers would hang out in gyms or pubs talking about the “Sweet Science” and anything else on their minds. Boxers weren’t brands although one could make a case for Muhammad Ali being the first.
He floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, or so he said. He was so handsome that after losing the Fight of the Century to Joe Frazier 50 years ago today, Diana Ross of The Supremes fame reportedly pressed an ice pack against Ali’s swollen right jaw.
“It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am,” Ali once said.
Frazier was a compact rhinoceros of a man, plodding forward with a crushing left hook, one of which caught Ali in the 15th round and dropped him to the canvas. To this day Frazier’s left is considered the single-most devastating punch in boxing history.
“I don’t think a man has to go around shouting and play-acting to prove he is something,” said Frazier.
They both had something to prove on the night of March 8th 1971 when Ali and Frazier met in The Garden. The stars didn’t align. They had been aligning for years. That night they collided.
Ali had been stripped of his title, fined and faced a five-year prison sentence for refusal to be inducted into the armed forces in 1967 and fight in Vietnam. The Supreme Court reserved that decision in 1971 but not before Ali had lost prime years off his career.
Less publicized was the fact that Frazier supported Ali. But that didn’t fit the narrative of Ali-Frazier.
Ali danced. Frazier stalked. Ali quipped. Frazier grunted. Ali was a 6-foot-3, 235-pound sculpture of a man. Frazier was a 5-foot-11, 229-pound rock of a man.
Just as forces in and out of the rink created the perfect backdrop for the 1980 battle of good vs evil – Team USA’s hockey victory over the Soviet Union in The Miracle on Ice – such was the case nine years prior when Ali and Frazier fought.
The nation was tearing itself apart. The Generation Gap widened. The Vietnam War escalated. The Civil Rights Act passed.
Where did an American stand? With Ali or Frazier?
Ali was seen as the people’s hero. The war was sparking peace demonstrations around the nation. Ali’s rhyming, loquacious, verbal skills and good looks made him the poster boy for the antiwar population.
Frazier was thrust into the role of the white, corporate America champ, arguably the only time he had been thrust by anyone into anything. Ali fed that narrative.
“Joe Frazier is an Uncle Tom,” said Ali, forgetting that Frazier supported his anti-war stance. “He works for the enemy.”
Frazier, the 11th child of sharecroppers grew up dirt poor in South Carolina. He moved by himself to Philadelphia when he was 15 and found work in a meat-packing factory. Frazier was not considered particularly handsome and he was not as well-spoken as Ali.
“Maybe I don’t rap as good as he do,” said Frazier. “Rapping ain’t my bag.”
Fighting was. Unlike some of today’s championships bouts in which the boxers have logged a dozen fights against mostly unknown opponents before getting their title shot, Ali (31-0, 25 KOs) and Frazier (26-0, 23 KOs) stood on the mountaintop of the sport – an undefeated champ and an undefeated former champ face to face with a nation watching.
Tickets for the fight were in such demand that Frank Sinatra got a press credential as a photographer for Life magazine. Woody Allen and Hugh Heffner were among the 20,455 fans, which didn’t include one fire marshal, at least not one on duty.
The fight was one of the only times in sports history that an event surpassed the hype. Ali’s left jab stung Frazier’s face and head. Frazier’s left hook bombarded Ali’s body and head.
Frazier floored Ali with one of those criminal lefts in the 15th round. Ali amazingly got off the canvas.
“They both threw some of the best punches I’ve ever seen,” referee Arthur Mercante, Jr. told reporters after the fight.
Frazier was the unanimous winner, winning nine rounds to six and 11-4 on the two judge’s cards and 8-6-1 on Mercante’s. Finally, it was Smokin Joe’s time to crow.
“I remember when I heard the bell,” said Frazier, “I looked at Ali and said, ‘Yeah, I kicked your ass.'”
Ali was whisked to then Flower-Fifth Avenue Hospital for X-rays on his right jaw. He was released later that night with no statement as to the extent of the injury. Frazier was later admitted to St. Luke’s hospital in Philadelphia where he remained for days, unable to stand, eat or urinate.
“Ali always said I would be nothing without him,” said Frazier. “But who would he have been without me?”
The greater question is: Where would they both be?