As Muhammad Ali fans know, as Joe Frazier fans know, and as fight historians everywhere know, this year marks the 50th anniversary of “The Fight Of The Century,” the epic first meeting between Ali and Frazier.
Tributes, features, look-backs, and more can be expected as a result (Ring Magazine’s forthcoming tribute to the March 1971 super-fight promises to be well worth a look).
There is no doubt about it – Ali and Frazier pushed each other to the limit of fighting ability, to the limit of physical endurance, to the brink of death (no exaggeration, as “The Thrilla in Manila” shows; and watching that sweltering slugfest all these years later is nothing for the squeamish).
When Ali, the super-fast dancing master, met Frazier, the relentless, bobbing and weaving attacker, nobody knew which fighter would prevail.
In total, these two giants fought three times, over the course of 41 rounds; but it is fight-one, and it is fight-three that fans go to when they have an urge to see the finest, the most electric, the most awe-inspiring heavyweight action of all time unfold before their eyes.
Ali-Frazier I had it all: history in the making, with Ali and Frazier being the first two unbeaten heavyweight champions to have met each other in the ring, an incredibly paced action fight, switching momentums, a dash of controversy, a stunning 15th and final-round knockdown, which was followed by a perhaps even more stunning rise from the canvas – with some iconic photographs of the whole event capturing the happening for all eternity to boot.
Ali-Frazier III was different. By the time of the 1975 battle, the decider, Ali and Joe, were both past their best. The two greats were heavier in weight, they had each taken some severe punishment, and both men were (or should have been) edging towards a contented retirement.
Yet, there was still bad blood between the two. There was still something to prove on both sides. Ali was champion again, having done something Frazier never could in scoring a KO over George Foreman – but Joe was still very much on Ali’s mind; “Smoke” was buried deep inside both Ali’s conciseness and his fighting pride. Frazier’s thorn remained embedded in Ali’s side.
There was only one way Ali, the supreme, all-conquering heavyweight king, could be at peace. There had to be a third and final fight, and Ali had to win it in a commanding fashion.
Today, some people try and tell you how Ali knew Frazier was shot to pieces, that he only fought him a third time because he knew it would be an easy fight; an easy payday to collect after taking relish in destroying the only fighter who had ever come close to threatening his ring supremacy and with it his ability to freely propagate his strong beliefs, religious and otherwise.
But in reality, Ali never thought that way. No, Ali knew he HAD to fight Frazier a third time, and he simply yet absolutely had to come out on top. Ali, “The Greatest,” had to end the rivalry that could never have been permitted to end at 1-1.
And Ali was in no way deluded or orbiting inside a place of false security. He knew it would be tough, tough, tough. But nobody – not Ali, not Frazier, not Angelo Dundee, not Eddie Futch, could possibly have known how tough. The third fight was life-changing.
Ali-Frazier III was hell inside a boxing ring. It was “the closest thing to death.” It was the greatest, most brutal, most physically and mentally testing world heavyweight title fight of all time.
Or was it?
Asking the question: Which was the greater fight, Ali-Frazier I or Ali-Frazier III, might be akin to asking the question: who was the greater songwriter, Lennon or McCartney. Or, who was the bigger comedy genius, Laurel or Hardy?
There was no comedy on display when Ali and Frazier went to war, but the two fighting masters did do their thing in brutal harmony. Twice. 15 rounds that will never be forgotten, and then 14 of the most grueling, punishing, and damaging rounds in the final fight. Both Ali and Frazier paid one hell of a price after going through what they went through in starting and then finishing their rivalry; this the most intense, the most demanding, the most celebrated rivalries in all of sport, not just boxing.
But which fight ranks as the greatest: Ali-Frazier I, or Ali-Frazier III? The Fight Of The Century, or, The Thrilla In Manila.
It’s up to you.