Forty years ago, America was clinging to what very little “innocence” remained from the violence and turmoil that dominated the 1960’s – the assassination of a President and his brother some years later, the Civil Rights Movement and the assassinations of three of its leaders – not to mention the threat of a nuclear war and a conflict in Southeast Asia that remained unresolved.
And then there was the unfinished business of Muhammad Ali.
By March of 1971, Muhammad Ali was the world’s most polarizing figure. His victory over Sonny Liston at age 22 to become the youngest heavyweight champion shocked the world of boxing – his decision to join the Nation of Islam shortly thereafter reverberated across socio-political lines. Not since Jackie Robinson joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 had there been a Black man at the forefront of the sports world.
In the spring of 1967, the world was just getting used to Muhammad Ali when his decision not to engage in the Viet Nam conflict due to his religious convictions proved to the world that his association with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad was no gimmick. Ali took his commitment to his faith far more serious than boxing – something 1967 America was not ready for. The former Cassius Clay refused to step forward when asked to be sworn in. Ali was eventually arrested and stripped of his title.
While Ali was left to stew in the injustices done to him, there was another young heavyweight carving a path similar to his.
Joe Frazier won the only boxing gold medal for the United States in 1964. The early days of Frazier’s career were spent with chief trainer Yancey “Yank” Durham who assembled Cloverlay, a group of local businessman invested in the career of Frazier. With this type of backing Frazier was allowed to focus on boxing full-time. In 1965, Durham would introduce Frazier to Eddie Futch who became an assistant under Durham until his death in 1973, Futch would become Frazier’s trainer full-time him for the remainder of his career. Fourteen of Frazier’s first fifteen bouts were stops and he seemed on the fast track to greatness. In February of 1967, Frazier and Ali would cross paths, the ever verbal Ali would state that Frazier would never whup him – not even in his wildest dreams.
Ali’s statement planted the seed of a feud that would take their sport to epic heights.
After Ali was stripped of his title, Frazier would defeat Buster Mathis in March of 1968 which would fill one of the vacancies left by Ali’s absence. The title was only recognized by the New York State Athletic Commission. Frazier would successfully defend his “championship” on four occasions defeating Oscar Bonavena in a return bout and Jerry Quarry. On February 16, 1970 Joe Frazier stopped Jimmy Ellis in the fifth round to become the undisputed heavyweight champion.
In August of the same year, Ali was granted a boxing license in the state of Georgia. In October, he would stop Jerry Quarry in three rounds and in December knock out Oscar Bonavena in fifteen rounds.
The date had been set for Muhammad Ali to meet Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971 – an opportunity for Ali to regain the championship no man have ever whooped him for. For Frazier it simply about proving that he was just as worthy as Ali to wear the crown.
Few sporting events in history have crossed economical, political and social lines, with the buildup that the “Fight of the Century” did.
On one side there was Muhammad Ali who ushered in a new generation of sports in America only to have it derailed based on the principles on which this country was built, once again proving that the doctrines that were written were for those of a lesser hue. Ali was the uncrowned champion – no man took his title in a fair fight. All he had to fall back on were his faith and his skills to regain what was rightfully his.
Then there was Frazier who was cast as the hero by default because so many still carried bitterness towards Ali for his refusal to serve. Frazier’s personality opposite that of his opponent, where Ali was loud and brash Frazier was quiet and subdued. Where Ali spoke and acted out against the war in Viet Nam, Frazier stated the only reason that he did not enlist was because he was already a father. Did it make Frazier any less of a Black man, I don’t think so, he never shunned his people and I’m sure in his private life Frazier fought the same wars of injustice that Ali chose to fight in public.
No one hyped the fight more than Ali whose mouth was in great shape after a three year exile. Ali instantly deemed Frazier an “Uncle Tom” a term that can cut to the heart – especially when it’s addressed from on Black man to another. The contrast was that Frazier was no “Tom”, he knew it, America knew it and most importantly Ali knew it. It was Frazier who helped Ali out financially when he couldn’t earn a living as a fighter.
Frazier was all for promoting the fight but this was the wrong way to go about it – too extreme and too personal. Frazier grew up in South Carolina and knew first hand the effects of Jim Crow so to be deemed a “Tom” by another Black man in that day and time took it beyond personal.
And of course this trickled down into the Black community. From schoolyards to street corners, anyone in opposition of Ali was labeled a “Tom” – if you looked at Ali favorably you were an deemed unappreciative not deserving to live in theses these United States, that were obviously divided by this momentous event.
Madison Square Garden would host the fight that would bring in the who’s who from the world of sports entertainment and politics. To give you an idea of the magnitude of this fight the great Frank Sinatra could not score a ringside seat so he signed on as a freelancer for Life Magazine to get as close to the action as anyone. Same for actor Burt Lancaster who would double that night as a color commentator. Artist Leroy Neiman painted a portrait of Ali during the fight. Zoot suits, full length furs with matching hats and every color in the spectrum were on display that night as the Garden crowd resembled something out of Ringling Bros.
The debate regarding the fight would be that Ali’s speed and overall ability would overpower Frazier while Frazier’s ability to fight inside and deceptive power along with Ali’s layoff would give him a great opportunity to win.
The fight itself exceeded any promotion that it was given, Ali came out using his jab to keep Frazier at bay for the first three rounds. The jabs took their toll on the champion as welts began to surface. Frazier would dominate the next three rounds as he went to Ali’s body and landed several punishing left hooks. A visibly spent Ali relied on his jab and flurries in spurts to let Frazier know that he was still in a fight. Things almost ended for the challenger in the 11th round when Frazier landed a crushing left hook that nearly floored Ali – only the ropes held him up.
Frazier continued his comeback and was ahead on all three scorecards heading into the final round.
The highlight of the fight would occur in the final round, it was the perfect left hook thrown by Frazier that floored Ali and sealed the win for the champion. Both fighters were battered after the fight and both spent time in the hospital. Rumors had surfaced that Frazier had died some hours after the fight, at which point Ali declared that if this were true that he would never fight again.
This fight would take both participants on different trips, Ali would not win the championship for another three and a half years when he defeated George Foreman who had defeated Frazier. Ali would step to the forefront of his sport as he would defeat Frazier in their next two meetings – the final encounter being the epic “Thrilla in Manila”.
Part 1 the other parts follow.