50 Years On: The Ali-Frazier “Fight Of The Century” Still Delivers

There are certain fights, certain great fights, that never get old. In terms of retaining the ability to thrill, to make a fight fan feel like giving thanks for being a fight fan – for making us feel special, these fights deliver like no others can.

Muhammad Ali’s first titanic battle with his fiercest rival, Joe Frazier, is an old fight now, 50 years old in fact. At least it will be on Monday, March 8.

Half a century has gone by since that Monday night in New York, when thousands of fans, mingling with celebrities, with stars of the political world, with stars of the silver screen, with many great fighters, either retired or active, witnessed the “Fight Of The Century.”

It was worthy of its lofty title then, and Ali-Frazier I is worthy of it still. This is a shining example of a fight that never gets old.

This weekend, with the next to no live boxing schedule in place, the place to be is in front of your TV screen, watching the fistic and televisual feast ABC will present.

The Ali-Frazier fight (Frazier won, so maybe his name should come first; but then Ali won the series 2-1, so Ali’s name comes first), having been completely remastered, will be shown in its entirety, the two-hour special to feature interviews and shared stories from those boxing dignitaries who were there that night.

The show will go out on ABC at 2 PM ET tomorrow and will be aired again on ESPN at 6 PM. It will absolutely be worth tuning in for.

Ali, unbeaten and seen by many millions as THE heavyweight champion of the world, and Frazier, unbeaten and seen by many millions as THE heavyweight champion of the world. Together they sorted out the mess; they punched it out in an effort to prove who was THE man.

Never before had two unbeaten heavyweight champions met in the ring. But the fight was much more than just sport. With the Vietnam war still raging, people were choosing sides; they had chosen sides.

If you were an Ali supporter, you were anti-war and anti-establishment. If you hoped like hell Frazier would win, you were pro-establishment. The Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight of 1938 aside, no world title fight carried as much political significance. Neither fighter could afford to lose for a whole bunch of reasons.

The fight was also a classic clash of styles: The Boxer (Ali) Vs. The Puncher (Frazier). Ali, just two rust-removing wins removed from his 3 years and seven months of enforced idleness, this his punishment for refusing to serve in Vietnam, said Frazier was too dumb, too ignorant, too ugly to defeat him or to be world heavyweight champion. “He’s too short,” Ali declared.

But Frazier was a giant of a man where it counted: inside, his heart as big as a lion’s and his sheer fighting pride attained during the many hard and lonely years he spent honing his craft, easily equal to that of Ali’s.

Ali underestimated Joe; he fought him too soon after all those long months out. “You’ve got to be sharp to fight Frazier,” Ali would later say. Now he knew, as did the world.

It took Frazier all 15 rounds to get the win, that and the single finest fighting performance of his entire career. But after sealing the deal with that famous left hook knockdown in the 15th and final round, the tough kid from the mean streets of Philadelphia had done it.

Frazier was king; Ali had lost for the very first time. Both men went to the hospital (later, arguments erupted over who spent the longest amount of time healing up and recovering; the two even getting into a scuffle in the ABC studio, the scuffle that preceded the rematch easily one that could have developed into something far nastier), while fight fans everywhere were already calling for the rematch.

This, of course, came in time, as did the third and deciding fight a year after that, but for many people, the first fight between these two genuinely bitter, genuinely evenly matched greats stands alone. It was special; it IS special. It’s Ali Vs. Frazier and this Monday sees the biggest boxing anniversary of them all. Two men who brought out the very best in each other the way nobody else could ever do. Ali and Frazier, the TWO greatest heavyweights of all time. As great boxing writer Jerry Izenberg has said, even after those three epic fights, those 41 rounds (fight-II not being as epic as fights I and III), the argument over who was the superior fighter of the two was still not settled. That’s how hard, how close, how punishing those fights really were for both legends.

But as far as the never to be forgotten night of March 8, 1971, goes, this was Frazier’s day. “Smokin’ Joe” had scored first blood.