“You know, you’re in here with the God tonight”, said one.
“If you are God, you’re in the wrong place tonight”, replied the other.
If you have read up to this, you must be thinking that why would someone write Batman vs. Superman as a story. An epic clash indeed but this one isn’t about any Comic book superhero. This is reliving the clash of the real life ‘Legends’. One which is called “The Fight of the Century”.
Yes, I am talking about the historic boxing match between Joe ‘Smokin’ Frazier and Muhammad ‘Greatest’ Ali. Two of the world’s best fighter pitted against each other as the world watched with awe. It was the first time that two undefeated boxers fought each other for the heavyweight title. The fight between champion Joe Frazier (26 wins, 23 knockouts) and challenger Muhammad Ali (31–wins, 25 knockouts) was held on March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
“I am the Greatest”
The famous quotes from arguably the best boxer in the world, Muhammad Ali (originally known as Cassius Clay), would self-promulgate himself as being “the greatest”. A boxer with an unorthodox style of fighting, Ali unlike other boxers never relied on power. His strong point was his superb reflexes, superior hand movements and quick footwork inside the ring. Holding his hands low he lashed out at opponents with a quick jab from inconceivable angles. In fact, he was so nimble inside the ring that it was extremely hard for his opponents to corner him against the ropes. He used certain techniques to overcome his opponents by taking a straight plunge backward from incoming punches. Highly conditioned boxers fell bait to this trick and got off balance which left Ali to counter punch them with a flurry of jabs and hooks. A fighter of exceptional caliber, nevertheless he was infamous for his arrogance, boorishness, nasty temper and a habit of mouthing off his opponents. He regularly taunted his opponents which include Liston, Frazier, Foreman before the fight and more often than not during the fight itself.
“ Smokin Joe”
Joseph William ‘Joe’ Frazier was a professional heavyweight boxer and one of the best in the history of the sport. He was the undisputed world heavyweight champion until 1973 when he lost it to George Foreman. Contrary to Ali’s style Frazier was famous for sheer strength, endurance, punch power and all-out attack. Frazier had a unique style of fighting-bobbing, weaving and relentless pressure to wear down his opponents. His best-known punch was a powerful left hook, which scored for most of his knockouts.
“If you wanna be the best, you gotta be the best”
-Never Back Down.
In 1971, both Ali and Frazier had legitimate claims to the title of World Heavyweight Champion. An undefeated Ali had won the title from Sonny Liston in Miami Beach in 1964 and successfully defended his belt up until he had it stripped by boxing authorities for refusing induction into the armed forces in 1967. In Ali’s absence, the undefeated Frazier garnered two championship belts through knockouts of Buster Mathis and Jimmy Ellis. He was recognized by boxing authorities as the World Champion. Frazier was credibly Ali’s superior, unlike Mathis and Ellis which resulted in an enormous level of hype and expectation where the two undefeated champions were against each other to determine who the best was. Both were unbent, unbroken and unbowed. Well, until then!!!
Ali had his pre-fight theatrics ready which added insult to the injury. His taunts were targeted towards Frazier so that he could psychologically win the battle by stirring him which would break his concentration. Ali portrayed Frazier as a “dumb tool of the white establishment”. “Frazier is too ugly to be champ,” Ali said. “Frazier is too dumb to be champ.” Ali also frequently called Frazier an Uncle Tom. Dave Wolf, who worked in Frazier’s camp, recalled that “Ali was saying ‘the only people rooting for Joe Frazier are white people in suits, Alabama sheriffs, and members of the Ku Klux Klan. I’m fighting for the little man in the ghetto.’ Joe was sitting there, smashing his fist into the palm of his hand, saying, ‘What the f**k does he know about the ghetto?”The match was more than just a fight for the Americans. Ali had become a symbol of the left-wing anti-establishment movement during his government-imposed exile from the ring, while Frazier had been adopted by the conservative, pro-war movement. If you were going for Ali you were black, liberal and young, against the Vietnam War and for the Civil Rights movement. If you supported Joe Frazier you were a representative of white, conservative America.
March 8, 1971. Madison Square Garden. New York City.
“Just listen to the roar of this crowd!” thundered Burt Lancaster, the play-by-play man. “The tension and the excitement here is monumental!” On the evening of the match, Madison Square Garden had an electrifying atmosphere, with policemen to control the crowd, abominably dressed fans, and countless celebrities, from Norman Mailer and Woody Allen to Frank Sinatra, who, after being unable to procure a ringside seat, took photographs for Life magazine instead. Artist Le Roy Neiman painted Ali and Frazier as they fought. Burt Lancaster served as a color commentator for the closed-circuit broadcast. Though Lancaster had never performed as a sports commentator before, he was hired by the fight’s promoter, Jerry Perenchio, who was also a friend. The other commentators were play-by-play announcer Don Dunphy and boxing champion Archie Moore. The referee for the fight was Arthur Mercante, Sr. the Fight lived up to more than everyone’s expectation and surprisingly went for the full 15 rounds. “It was electric in the Garden the night of the fight,” Shearer remembers. “It was the night of the great showdown between the era’s two gladiators, and there was a sense that the unprecedented hype for the fight might actually fall short of the reality. And, remember, without a doubt, it was a very, very pro-Ali crowd. They all came to see him win, to see him destroy Joe Frazier.”
Ali commanded the initial three rounds, peppering the shorter Frazier with jabs that raised bruises on the champion’s face. In the closing seconds of round three, Frazier connected with a magnificent hook to Ali’s jaw, pushing his head back. Frazier viciously attacked Ali’s body as the hurt former champion covered up for the first time. Frazier began to dictate the fourth round, blowing Ali with several of his famed left hooks and pinning him against the ropes to deliver terrible body blows.
Ali was visibly tired after the sixth round, and though he put together some flurries of punches after that round, he was unable to maintain the tempo he had set in the first third of the fight. His speed and combinations kept him on even terms with Frazier, however, at 1 minute and 59 seconds into round eight following his clean left hook to Ali’s right jaw, Frazier, tired of Ali’s leaning on the ropes and clinching to avoid fighting, grabbed Ali’s wrists and swung Ali into the center of the ring. Ali immediately grabbed Frazier until they were once again separated by Mercante. The fight was intense until round 11.
During the opening seconds of round 11, Frazier caught Ali with a left hook at nine seconds into the round. At 10 seconds into the round, Ali fell to the canvas with both gloves and his right knee on the canvas with the video clearly showing Ali down at the 10.5 – 11-second mark into the round. Mercante stepped between Ali and Frazier separating them as Ali rose from the canvas. Mercante wiped Ali’s gloves but failed to call the knockdown. At 18 seconds into round 11, Mercante indicated the fighters to engage once again. Round 11 finished with Frazier floundering Ali with a crushing left hook and Ali stumbled and grabbed at Joe to keep his balance and finally stumbled back first to the ropes before bouncing forward again to Frazier and grabbing on to Frazier until the fighters were separated by Mercante at 2:55 into the round. Ali spent the remaining 5 seconds of round 11 escaping his way back to his corner. Ali managed to survive the round, but from then on Frazier seemed to control the fight.
At the end of round 14, Frazier held a lead on all three scorecards (by scores of 7–6–1, 10–4, and 8–6). Early in round 15, Frazier landed a terrific left hook that put Ali on his back. Ali, his jaw swollen grotesquely, got up from the blow quickly and managed to stay on his feet for the rest of the round despite a flurry of punches from Frazier. A few minutes later the judges made it official: Frazier had retained the title with a unanimous decision, dealing Ali his first professional loss.
Ali, for his part, refused denied his defeat publicly and privately to his friends, such as George Plimpton and attempted to impress the outcome in the public’s mind as a “White Man’s Decision”. By the time of the rematches the social climate in America had settled down, with The Vietnam War coming to an end and without either fighter representing the social divide in the country, neither their second or third fight lived up to the hype of the first. Of those who participated that evening, seven have been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York. They are Ali, Frazier, referee Arthur Mercante, matchmaker Teddy Brenner, Garden president Harry Markson, Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee, Frazier’s trainer Eddie Futch and a broadcast team that included Don Dunphy and Archie Moore.
The fight was unique in essence as for the first time in history it matched an unbeaten former heavyweight champion against the unbeaten current champion. If styles make fights, then there has never been a pair of fighters who complemented each other more. Ali was the boxer and Frazier the puncher. The key to Ali’s success was his speed and a left jab that could dictate a fight. He also had enough agility and footwork to escape danger. Frazier’s best punch was a devastating left hook but his prized attribute was his courage, grit and never-say-die attitude. A fight with Joe Frazier was a war. “The Fight” was witnessed by 20,455 at the Garden and it has been estimated that 300 million more watched it across the world on closed-circuit television. The live gate generated $1.3 million.
Ali and Frazier set the standard that night at the Garden. Boxers will forever battle but few will be able to replicate it with the skill, elegance, courage, and determination of Ali and Frazier. They brought the best out of each other and out of the sport of boxing.