Muhammad Ali the dancing master was an utter joy to watch, and a mesmerising target for his opponents. The world saw the best of this version of Ali in the 1960s; when Ali was up on his toes, slinging out zinging punches, this while being almost impossible to tag with a clean shot himself. Then came the enforced exile of over three-and-a-half years, and Ali’s legs, along with his almost otherworldly reflexes, were never quite the same again.
Sure, the 1970s version of “The Greatest” could still dance, but not for the full 15 rounds, and not as (seemingly) effortlessly as he had done before the Vietnam War came into his life in one big way. The second incarnation of Ali saw the best to ever do it at heavyweight use a combination of sticking and moving, of rope-a-doping, of slugging it out. And Ali’s chin became his most important asset as a result. Indeed, never let it be told that Ali could not take a great punch, a devastating (to other mortals) punch.
But when was the last great dancing performance put on by Ali? Some experts point to the second fight Ali had with the man who was so easily his most intense rival, Joe Frazier. The return bout between Ali and Frazier celebrates its 50th anniversary today, “Super Fight II” having taken place at the same iconic venue as “The Fight of the Century” from March of 1971, this of course being Madison Square Garden in New York. It would be some time before an unknown hustler named Don King would unexpectedly take Ali, and the boxing world, to exotic locations such as Zaire, Africa.
And in his return battle with “Smokin’ Joe,” Ali’s legs were ready to serve him well for all 12 rounds. Ali may have had hand trouble (needing cortisone jabs) but his legs were in fine working order on this night. Having learned the hardest way that the rope-a-dope that would famously fell George Foreman later that fateful year didn’t work with Joe; with Frazier getting in and under Ali’s arms as he languished on the ropes in their first epic fight, Ali knew he had to stay on the move this time.
And so he did, this after whipping himself into superb shape. Ali, coming off a close, very demanding revenge win over Ken Norton (a relatively easy win over Rudie Lubbers coming in-between) used the residue of the conditioning he had worked so hard to obtain ahead of the Norton return and, with another gruelling training camp undergone prior to the return with Frazier, Ali was fast, ever-moving, and hard to hit. Joe lost a unanimous decision and he was badly marked up at the end.
The second fight of the series is often given the label of disappointment, or let-down. And while it’s true Ali-Frazier II is not as great a spectacle as the first and third fights between these two giants, the middle fight is no dud.
There was yesterday, a piece that ran in the New York Times that makes the perhaps shocking claim that the second Ali-Frazier fight was “the best ever.”
Writer James Rosen writes how Ali “danced like the Ali of old: a balletic, backward-circling motion from which he struck like a cobra.”
The writer of the piece also reminds us of the way an Ali right hand “lifted Frazier off the canvas, just as Foreman had done in Jamaica.”
Also, Rosen points out, Ali at one point in the fight, this in the 12th and final round, landed nine punches in seven seconds.
This, along with the controversy of referee Tony Perez, who “heard the bell,” and jumped in 20-seconds too early in round two, this when Joe was badly hurt, all added up to give us quite a fight. The best of the series might be a stretch, but Rosen is correct when he says the second fight in the series “warrants re-examination.”
While another Ali writer in Jonathan Eig says this of Ali-Frazier II – “The second fight is the one where Ali really figures Frazier out.”
A half-century ago today, Ali arguably gave us his last great dancing show, this as he scored his most comprehensive win over his greatest, most testing ring rival.