Muhammad Ali’s first titanic battle with his fiercest rival, Joe Frazier, is an old fight now. A very old fight. It was on this day, March 8 in 1971, when the “Fight of the Century” gripped the entire world. Both greats have been gone for some time, yet the fight – or fights – Ali and Frazier gave us will never be forgotten.
Three times these heavyweight titans went to war, the first and third fights being as brutal, as beautiful, as utterly splendid as any other fight or fights you care to mention. Or maybe Ali-Frazier I and Ali-Frazier III are THE two greatest fights of all-time?
Over 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 Ali-Frazier I. While it has been almost 48 years since world was captivated by “The Thrilla in Manilla.”
But which fight do you prefer, which battle do you think was the best?
That first fight, between two unbeaten, almost at their peak heavyweight immortals (Joe being there, Ali having had his prime years taken from him) sure takes some beating. As special as the third and final fight was.
Ali, seen by many millions as THE heavyweight champion of the world, and Frazier, also 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. 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.