The biggest, some say the greatest fight of them all, took place 50 years ago today: a Monday night in New York. It was “The Fight Of The Century” between unbeaten heavyweight champions Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, and all weekend we have been looking back, or, in the case of some younger fans, watching for the very first time, and we have been celebrating and paying tribute to the momentous battle. Writers, promoters and other boxing dignitaries who had the privilege of being there that night have been sharing their stories, their precious memories. Britain’s Colin Hart, who covered the fight for UK tabloid ‘The Sun,’ recalls how all members of the press had to wear a baseball cap as they took their seats at ringside. The reason? So the police “would know which heads to hit and which heads not to hit should a riot break out.”
The feeling of hysteria was enormous and very real. Two fans were felled by heart attacks, Hart recalls for his column in the paper, both men sadly dying. Bob Arum recalls another interesting story or two. In speaking with ‘The Mirror,’ the Top Rank boss says he had in his possession six ringside tickets, price a then unheard of $150 each, and he was offered far more than that to sell them. Yet Arum refused to part with the tickets. “Because I was Ali’s lawyer I was able to buy six centre ringside seats, the best seats in the place,” Arum said. “They cost me $150 each and I remember being offered $15,000 for the six tickets. Lawyers in New York weren’t making $15,000 a year so that was an enormous amount of money. That’s the equivalent now of $50,000 to $60,000. I turned it down, that shows the frenzy that surrounded that fight.”
In all, 20,455 lucky fans sat, or stood, inside a rocking Madison Square Garden as Ali and Frazier went to war over the course of those 15 pulse-quickening rounds. Along with Hart and Arum, superstars like Dustin Hoffman, Ted Kennedy, Frank Sinatra (taking photos for LIFE magazine, for free, so anxious was “Ol’ Blue Eyes” to get as close as possible to the action), Sammy Davis Jr, Aretha Franklin and Hubert Humphrey witnessed the epic unfold. In total, Hart recalls, 760 journalists (including two from Russia, boxing being banned there at the time!) were in attendance, while a further 500 applicants for accreditation were turned down. Hart says he was seated near literary giants, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton and Budd Schulberg.
What a night it must have been for each and every soul crammed inside Madison Square Garden. Since that awesome night, seldom if ever has there been a more action-packed world heavyweight title fight. in fact, it is probably only the third, deciding super-fight Ali and Frazier engaged in in Manila in 1975 that has ever topped the fight of 50 years ago today. In short, Ali and Frazier, two utterly great fighters with such contrasting styles, brought out the greatness in each other. Arum says no fight – NO FIGHT – tops “The Fight Of The Century.”
“The Rumble in the Jungle doesn’t compare, nothing compares with that fight,” Arum states.
The Ten Greatest Heavyweight Fights Of All Time (in the opinion of one writer:)
1: Muhammad Ali Vs. Joe Frazier III
2: Jack Dempsey Vs. Luis Angel Firpo
3: George Foreman Vs. Ron Lyle
4: Muhammad Ali Vs. Joe Frazier I
5: Ike Ibeabuchi Vs. David Tua
6: Riddick Bowe Vs. Evander Holyfield
7: Rocky Marciano Vs. Jersey Joe Walcott I
8: Larry Holmes Vs. Ken Norton
9: James Douglas Vs. Mike Tyson
10: Jack Johnson Vs. Stanley Ketchel