Boxing

The Win of the Century

Joe FrazierBy Timothy Seaver -- “Don’t you know I’m God?” Muhammad Ali asked this of Joe Frazier on March 8th, 1971, while battling in a torrid maelstrom with his greatest foe. On this date, these two men fought in front of a jubilant, sellout crowd in Madison Square Garden, while an estimated 300 million people throughout the globe, suspended their daily rituals and sat in transfixed wonder as they watched the emotion fueled battle between two undefeated champions. There was irrepressible strife between the two men, declarations of war had been drafted, and Madison Square Garden was the scene of the battle.

Both men had a legitimate claim to the crown. Ali won the belt from Sonny Liston in 1964, and defeated the best fighters of the decade before being stripped of his title for his refusal to sign-up with the U.S military. It was the government, and not another fighter, that had removed his title. Throughout his reign as champion, Ali had unmatched speed of foot and hand, and reflexes that shot his jab as though from a trigger. Along with Liston, he had wins against Floyd Patterson, Ernie Terrell, Zora Folley, and just about every other top fighter of the era. As he saw it, his name should have been perpetually associated with the words “Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World.” The title, he thought, was his; and he intended to prove it.

Frazier also had reason to boast that he was the real champion. Twice he had proved himself by winning titles inside the ring. His first belt came against his old rival from the amateur days, Buster Mathis. In this battle with the huge Mathis he won the New York State title (a crown with significance beyond the confines of its state). He later won the WBA title when he stopped the smaller, but talented Jimmy Ellis. By this time, Frazier’s style had become as familiar as Ali’s. His left hook could have been trademarked, for no one else threw it with the same kind of power or relentless determination. The depth of Frazier’ stamina was surpassed by only his will to win.

People selling the show to the public had crafted the phrase, “Fight of the Century”. Though the term was drafted as more of an advertising ploy than an honest expectation, the moniker has proved to be more than mere hyperbole. Though other fights have surpassed it in excitement and pure thrills, the significance of the event is unmatched in boxing history. It was speed versus power; elegance versus determination; the refined against the raw. Both men held a convincing claim to the title, yet both walked in a kind of limbo wherein they had a crown, but had to prove their right to wear it. They both accomplished so much, yet had so much to prove. They entered the ring with no loss upon their records, and no love lost between them. It was a plot ripped as though from the heart of an anguished poet.

When the two men stood in the ring, Ali was 215 pounds and Frazier was just over 205. They were trim athletes, ready for whatever the other may bring. The bell rang with a simultaneous thump from the hearts of all the onlookers. Smoking Joe began with an early attack to Ali’s body. This attack came in defiance of Ali’s snapping jabs and deftly thrown right hands. Being the fighter he was, Joe knew he might have to risk receiving three punches for the chance to land one. The Frazier swarm continued and then in the fourth, he nailed his boastful adversary and brought blood to Ali’s nose. In the fifth Joe suspended his usual quiet ways and openly mocked the “Mouth From the South”, and welcomed punches to his face. The sixth round had passed, and Frazier was still there despite Ali’s claim that the battle would not see the seventh. Despite this temporary win for Frazier, his attack to Ali’s body was not as successful as he would have liked. Still, he continued to weave in close to the taller man, and fought on the inside. All the while, Ali continued his jabs and his lightning fast combinations.

As the fight moved into the later stage, Ali showed his willingness to trade and seemed to pressure Frazier met resistance with resistance. They were like dueling tempests contained in a roped square.

The last few rounds had cooled a bit after both men had given so much of themselves. Then in the fifteenth round, as if searching for a perfect coda to this dramatic piece, Frazier landed his signature left hook upon Ali’s face. The great Ali had hit the deck; and though he roes, the outcome of the fight was clear.

The torrent of passion had run its course. All that was left now was the official word from the judges. Perhaps Ali is the greatest heavyweight of all time, but Frazier was the greatest on that night.

To understand the essence of this night, one needn’t read the scores from the judges. One merely needs to know what Ali heard when he attempted to make Frazier wither and quit.

Muhammad Ali: “Don’t you know I’m God?”

Joe Frazier: “Well God, you’re in the wrong place tonight.”

Article posted on 10.03.2009



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