As surely any boxing fan knows, it was on this day – 47 long years ago – when Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, the two greatest heavyweights of their era, met in the fabled “Fight of The Century.” This battle, an incredible 15 round war, actually lived up to the hype, to its billing. Ali of course, actually lost – for the first time in his pro career. But as much as this special night belonged to Joe, Ali’s legend only grew after the loss.
Now everyone knew how tough, how game, how courageous and full of heart the previously dismissed (by some) ‘pretty boy’ really was. While Frazier, as high and as on top as he ever would be, had only one way to go, and – aside from a third war with Ali – Joe had peaked; his fire largely burnt out.
Ali and Frazier fought in a different era of course, when the sport was vastly different. Fighters fought more often, they could never have dreamed of the luxury of “cherry picking” the way fans have to watch the best fighters of today do and the paydays were nowhere near as monstrous as they often are now.
If a fighter of either Ali or Frazier’s exceptional talents was around today, it’s likely he would never lose (see Floyd Mayweather; a great fighter, but one who benefited greatly from being able to do things his way: as in fight whoever he wanted to and avoid whoever he wanted to).
Look at the almost ludicrous list of quality opposition Ali faced during his 21-year pro career:
Sonny Liston (twice)
Floyd Patterson (twice)
Joe Frazier (three times)
Ken Norton (three times)
George Chuvalo (twice)
Jerry Quarry (twice)
Now take a look at some of the greats Joe rumbled with:
George Foreman (X2)
Jerry Quarry (X2)
Oscar Bonavena (X2)
In short, Ali fought absolutely everyone he should have, as well as plenty of fighters he never had to face. Frazier too fought a genuine murderer’s row. Cherry picking was never even an option in Frazier and Ali’s day. Consider how much tougher fighters had it in Ali and Frazier’s day: Ali returned, after over three-and-a-half years of enforced inactivity, in 1970; searching for a chance to regain the world champion status, from Frazier, he never lost in the ring.
Today, such a giant would have had at least two “warm-up” fights against soft opposition, then he might have fought a fringe contender, then a top-10 guy and then, picking and choosing from the three generally accepted “world” titles that were available, he would have gone for the weakest claimant of one.
Ali? He had to face Jerry Quarry (a world champ today for sure) and then, a mere seven weeks later, the murderously strong and unorthodox Oscar Bonavena (the last, and I mean, the LAST heavyweight a skilled boxer who was attempting to re-tune his skills would have picked to do so against). And after these two rough, tough and dangerous contenders had been dealt with, Ali met “Smokin’” Joe – just over four months after returning from his enforced exile! Truly incredible, and the two men sure gave their all in an attempt to prove who was superior.
Ali lost to Frazier, but it was a titanic battle; one that left Joe disfigured and beaten up, never to be the same force again. While Ali, after battling tough and awkward foes such as Norton (twice) and Frazier again, rose to the very top once again, his crown regained with that stunning win over Frazier’s conqueror, George Foreman, in 1974.
Would such a comeback be possible these days even if there existed a fighter brave enough, hungry enough and great enough to even try it? It’s doubtful.
Ali’s greatest accomplishment, in the ring, is his overcoming adversity. The Greatest never had it easy, and that’s just the way he liked it. Ali was the best – his unequalled level of quality opposition proves it. And Frazier, who was so often cast in Ali’s huge shadow, he was arguably the second greatest heavyweight of the 1970s.
Almost half a century ago today, these two superb fighting machines collided in front of a spectacularly star-studded audience. No-one who was there and is still living will EVER forget it.