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It was 40 Years Ago Today…

A few months before I was born, two previously undefeated boxers, Muhammad Ali (31-0)and Joe Frazier (26-0) fought for the heavyweight title in the so-called “Fight of the Century” at Madison Square Garden. That was forty years ago today. It was not their greatest fight–that would be the Thrilla in Manila–but it was possibly the biggest spectacle in boxing history.

Here is our man John Schulian, writing for the Library of America’s website:

The two of them had been friends before their violent Garden party. When Ali was stripped of his heavyweight championship in 1967 for refusing induction into the military and found himself wandering the college lecture circuit, Frazier loaned him money. It was a fitting gesture, for Frazier now wore the crown that had been Ali’s. But he vowed he would give the deposed champ a chance to win it back, and when Ali was allowed to return to the ring in 1970, Frazier did something that isn’t standard practice in the cutthroat world of boxing. He kept his word.

They would each make $2.5 million and fight in front of a Garden crowd that overflowed with celebrities. Burt Lancaster, Sinatra’s co-star in From Here to Eternity, did the radio commentary. But the only thing that really mattered was the hatred that had erupted when Ali called Frazier an Uncle Tom and a tool of good-old-boy sheriffs and Ku Klux Klansmen. In a lifetime filled with kindness as well as greatness, it was a low moment for Ali. He knew full well that Frazier, the thirteenth child born to a one-armed North Carolina sharecropper, had traveled a far harder road than he had. By comparison, Ali was a child of privilege, raised in relative comfort in Louisville, his boxing career bankrolled by local white businessmen. But he got away with it because he was handsome, charming, funny, all the things Frazier was not.

And here’s Mark Kram from his book “Ghosts of Manila”:

Ali was the first in the ring, in a red velvet robe with matching trunks, and white shoes with red tassels. He glided in a circle to a crush of sound, a strand of blown grass. Whatever you might have thought of him then, you were forced to look at him with honest, lingering eyes, for there might never be his like again. Assessed by ring demands–punch, size, speed, intelligence, command, and imagination–he was an action poet, the equal of the best painting you could find or a Mozart who failed to die too early. If that is an overstatement, disfiguring the finer arts by association with a brute game, consider the mudslide of purple that attaches to his creative lessers in other fields, past and present; Ali was physical art, belonged alone in a museum of his own. I was extremely fond of him, of his work, of the decent side of his nature, and jaundiced on his cultish servility, his termopolitical combustions that tried to twist adversaries into grotesque shapes. It never worked, excerpt perhaps on Liston, who came to think that he was clinically insane. It did work on himself, shaped the fear for his face and general well-being into a positive force, a psychological war dance that blew up the dam and released his flood of talent. The trouble was that, like Kandinsky’s doubled-sided painting of chaos and calm, it became increasingly difficult for him to find his way back from one side to the other.

In a green and gold brocade robe with matching trunks, Joe Frazier almost seemed insectile next to Ali in the ring, and he was made more so as Ali waltzed by him, bumped him and said: “Chum!” Far from that slur, Joe was a gladiator right smack to the root conjurings of the title, to the clank of armor he seemed to emit. Work within his perimeter, and you courted what fighters used to call “the black spot,” the flash knockout. He was a figher that could be hit with abandon, but if you didn’t get him out of there his drilling aggression, his marked taste for pursuit and threshing-blade punches could overwhelm you; as one military enthusiast in his camp siad, “like the Wehrmacht crossing into Russia.” I was drawn to the honesty of his work, the joy he derived from inexorable assault, yet had a cool neutrality to his presence. In truth, with a jewel in each hand, i didn’t want to part with either of them, thus making me pitifully objective, a captial sinner in the most subjective and impressionistic of all athletic conflicts.

Frazier won the fight, of course, in front of a celebrity-studded crowd. Dali, Elvis, Woody and the Beatles were there. Burt Lancaster did the color for the closed-circut broadcast and Frank Sinatra was there taking pictures for Life Magazine.

In the latest issue of Sports Illustrated, Richard Hoffer has a nice little piece on the fight:

While it promised sufficient sporting spectacle and mystery (could Ali reclaim the grace of his youth and now, nearing 30, reclaim the title that many thought was still rightfully his?), the fight also operated as a social ballot box. Ali, who’d been a sort of political prisoner, commanded the support of every freethinker in the country and beyond, striking his revolutionary stance. In addition, he somehow cast a fight between two black men as a racial referendum, a puzzled and comically outraged Frazier now a stand-in for the status quo and the white man as well.

All this was accomplished with the primitive promotional platforms at hand: newspapers, radio and talk shows. The intrigue was still enough to make the fight the hottest ticket of a lifetime, possibly the most glamour-struck event ever. The excitement was overwhelming, even far beyond the Garden, but can you imagine what it might have been like if Ali, the ultimate pitchman, had, say, a Facebook page? If we’re so eager to exploit celebrity that a semifamous athlete like Chad Ochocinco has his own reality show, then you can be certain Ali would have had his own network long before Oprah.

Then again, how could our digital applications improve upon the analog beauty of their struggles that night, an eye-popping brutality that Frazier narrowly won, a contest of such evenly matched wills, such equal desperation that the words Ali-Frazier have come to signify a kind of ruinous self-sacrifice? The old ways are not necessarily the best, but once a generation, anyway, they’re good enough.

Ali taunted and humilated Frazer time and again in the press and Frazier has never forgiven him for it. From Bill Nack’s great 1996 piece on Smokin’ Joe:

He has known for years of Frazier’s anger and bitterness toward him, but he knows nothing of the venom that coursed through Frazier’s recent autobiography, Smokin’ Joe. Of Ali, Frazier wrote, “Truth is, I’d like to rumble with that sucker again—beat him up piece by piece and mail him back to Jesus…. Now people ask me if I feel bad for him, now that things aren’t going so well for him. Nope. I don’t. Fact is, I don’t give a damn. They want me to love him, but I’ll open up the graveyard and bury his ass when the Lord chooses to take him.”

Nor does Ali know what Frazier said after watching him, with his trembling arm, light the Olympic flame: “It would have been a good thing if he would have lit the torch and fallen in. If I had the chance, I would have pushed him in.”

Nor does Ali know of Frazier’s rambling diatribe against him at a July 30 press conference in Atlanta, where Frazier attacked the choice of Ali, the Olympic light heavyweight gold medalist in 1960 and a three-time heavyweight champion of the world, as the final bearer of the torch. He called Ali a “dodge drafter,” implied that Ali was a racist (“He didn’t like his white brothers,” said Frazier) and suggested that he himself—also an Olympic champion, as a heavyweight, in 1964—would have made a better choice to light the flame: “Why not? I’m a good American…. A champion is more than making noise. I could have run up there. I’m in shape.”

And while Frazier asserts at one turn that he sees “the hand of the Lord” in Ali’s Parkinson’s syndrome (a set of symptoms that include tremors and a masklike face), he also takes an eerily mean-spirited pride in the role he believes he played in causing Ali’s condition. Indeed, the Parkinson’s most likely traces to the repealed blows Ali took to the head as a boxer—traumas that ravaged the colony of dopamine-producing cells in his brain—and no man struck Ali’s head harder and more repeatedly than Frazier.

“He’s got Joe Frazier-itis,” Frazier said of Ali one day recently, flexing his left arm. “He’s got left-hook-itis.”

Check out this cool photo gallery of “The Fight of the Century” over at Life.com.


1 TheGreenMan   ~  Mar 8, 2011 1:44 pm

When boxing was relevant. Sigh...

I'm not quite old enough to remember this bout, but I do remember the next two fights between Ali and Frazier pretty vividly. There is a great documentary on the Fight of the Century that I saw a few years ago. For any boxing fan, that's a must-see.

2 Alex Belth   ~  Mar 8, 2011 2:00 pm

2) Nice. I'd love to see that.

3 Chyll Will   ~  Mar 8, 2011 2:04 pm

And Frazier wonders why seemingly few people give a crap about him to this day and most treat him like a centuries-old joke (in an episode of The Simpsons, Barney was supposed to beat Frazier up, but his son objected, so they switched it around).

He stated as recently as 2009 that he doesn't have any bitter feelings about Ali anymore, but how much of all that do you think was "showmanship" or a way to stay relevant, especially with the Ali Renaissance of the 90's and on? Calling a man an Uncle Tom is one of the most devastating things one black person can say to another; even beyond being called the N-word, but at some point I believe Frazier damaged his own legacy far more than Ali did.

4 Chyll Will   ~  Mar 8, 2011 2:08 pm

[3] Actually, I can see how a man can stay bitter for a long time, given Ali's legacy has had a generally positive view in the public, but again, Frazier's public spats and outward bitterness was very unfortunate and practically overshadows his Hall of Fame career.

5 Raf   ~  Mar 8, 2011 3:02 pm

Alex, you can see the documentary (in parts) on youtube.

6 Alex Belth   ~  Mar 8, 2011 3:17 pm

5) Cool. Yeah, Frazier's bitterness does not speak well of him. It's interesting how beloved Ali is now, so much more so than he was when he was fighting.

You know who is really overlooked, though? Ken Norton, who fought three extremely close fights against Ali.

7 Sliced Bread   ~  Mar 8, 2011 3:26 pm

4) every fighter eventually defeats himself. It's the most tragic sport because nobody walks away from it gracefully, they all go down fighting against themselves, against time, against society, against anything that resists or ignores their will.That is the fighter's curse.

8 bp1   ~  Mar 8, 2011 3:42 pm

GREAT stuff, guys. Thanks AB for posting all those links and excerpts. Really enjoyed that.

The earliest fight I remember is Ali-Foreman. My Dad just had knee surgery and had a wheelchair in the house (no arthroscopy back then fore sure). I watched the whole fight from the chair in the living room, on ABC Wide World of Sports. (imagine that). I remember being bitterly disappointed at the Ali-Holmes fight.

Watching Ali fight was and still is simply breathtaking - the grace, precision, speed, power. Anytime they show those fights on ESPN Classic I get stuck - mesmerized. The Ali-Frazier fights will never be approached again. They were the apex of the sport. I still get goose bumps every time Ali sets his feet and really lets fly. Geez - he was something else. What a fighter. What an athlete.

[7] I think Lennox Lewis escaped the sport pretty well. He may be one of the few who managed. Sugar Ray Leonard, maybe. George Foreman. Both those guys went out after losses and maybe took it a fight too far, but didn't have a moment like Ali-Holmes where it was clearly over.

9 Sliced Bread   ~  Mar 8, 2011 3:47 pm

I also think people make too much of Frazier's bitter words.Words are not the strength of a fighter.They are most often the keys to his undoing. I will not be surprised if Frazier eventually pays his respects to Ali

10 Sliced Bread   ~  Mar 8, 2011 4:00 pm

8) good stuff bp.My point is that fighter's who manage to escape gracefully are no longer fighters. They're celebrities, spokesmen,salesmen, etc

11 Alex Belth   ~  Mar 8, 2011 4:14 pm

One fighter who walked away clean, if not happy, was Marvin Hagler. His last fight was against Sugar Ray, and he's not alone in claiming that he was robbed, although I thought Ray won it (you can make a good argument either way).

12 Chyll Will   ~  Mar 8, 2011 5:02 pm

[11] I remember my brother and I both watching that fight, and after the last bell my brother looked at me sidelong and said, "You know Hagler won that fight. But they're gonna give it to Leonard." Sure enough. I probably wouldn't have felt as bad for Marvelous Marvin if he wasn't so sure he'd won it in the first place, but Sugar Ray made it close enough, which apparently was good enough for the judges.

Oscar De La Hoya walked away with his brains intact... I think. Lennox definitely did. Gotta give Foreman credit for whipping himself back to shape at a late age and winning those belts before going back out, though you have to wonder if boxing is responsible for him naming all five of his sons George (not to mention two of his daughters Freda George and Georgetta)...

13 NoamSane   ~  Mar 9, 2011 12:29 pm

Thanks AB! I loved, loved, loved Ali growing up in the 70s.

This post inspired me to spend waaay too much time watching all 3 Ali-Frazier fights on YouTube last night (+ a little Frazier-Foreman -- "Down goes Frazier!"). Then to return to my 2000s frame of mind (sanity?), I listened to a Sports Guy podcast with head trauma activist/expert Chris Nowinski during which Nowinski opines that he thinks Ali suffers from CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy), not Parkinson's. Watching those fights was exhilarating, but painful. I will now return to not watching boxing anymore (unless I'm stuck on a cross-country flight and they're showing some greats on ESPN Classic, of course).

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