March 8, 1971. Forty years ago today. Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier. Fight of the Champions. Two undefeated boxers fighting for the heavyweight championship of the world. Madison Square Garden, New York City.
Two generations of Americans have been born since that evening, and so much history has transpired since then — the end of the Vietnam conflict, Watergate and the resignation in disgrace of President Richard Nixon, the Reagan era, the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, two wars with Iraq, the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, the near collapse of the world economy in September, 2008, and the election of an African-American, Barack Obama as President of the United States.
Yet for me, nearly every moment of that day forty years ago today remains vivid.
I was a senior at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, preoccupied with my applications for law school. Ali-Frazier I, however, was the most anticipated sports event of my lifetime, and I spent a significant amount of time in the days before the bout discussing it and reading about it. I saw the fight on closed circuit television, large screen, at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago. I can still remember the “L-Train” ride that evening from Evanston to the Lawrence Avenue station next to the Aragon with my friend and fellow senior, the late George Karabis.
In those days, there was no home pay-per-view available to middle-class America. If you wanted to see a heavyweight championship fight, you paid to see it on closed-circuit television in a theatre or a large arena. I paid ten dollars for my ticket to the Aragon — a very cheap price to share a significant moment in history.
The fight lived up to expectations — it was a classic, memorable battle. Yet it was not as great a fight in boxing terms as the “Thrilla in Manila” fought between Ali and Frazier on October 1, 1975. That latter fight was perhaps history’s greatest heavyweight championship bout — brutal and savage from the opening bell until its stoppage by Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch prior to the start of the fifteenth and final round. The first Ali-Frazier bout will be remembered not only for the fight itself but even more for its very significance in American history.
In remembering the fight, it is first essential to describe what Ali was — and what he was not.
Muhammad Ali was not Jackie Robinson. In my view, Jackie Robinson was, without exaggeration, the greatest American of the Twentieth Century. Jackie’s triumph over brutal racism as the first African-American in Major League Baseball marked the beginning of the end of Jim Crow segregation in America. Robinson was a major leader in the civil rights movement in post-World War II America and an individual of towering intellect. Muhammad Ali was neither of these two things.
For the baby boomer generation, however, Muhammad Ali was a symbol of both justifiable Black pride and the anti-Vietnam War movement. At the time of Ali-Frazier I, the United States Supreme Court had not yet overturned Ali’s lower court conviction of violation of Selective Service “draft” laws.
Ali’s last fight prior to his three and one-half years of forced ring idleness was against Zora Folley in March, 1967. He knocked out Folley in the seventh round in the old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue and 50th Street. After he refused forced induction into the military in April, 1967, Ali was deprived unjustifiably of his boxing license by the various boxing commissions throughout the nation. So for my generation, Ali was a symbol of societal injustice.
For me as a boxing fan, the injustice against Ali was magnified by the fact that it deprived him of what would have been his best years as a fighter. In my opinion, Ali was pound-for-pound the greatest fighter of all time, even greater than the immortal Sugar Ray Robinson. At the time of the Folley fight, Ali was approaching the prime years of his career. Yes, we saw a great Muhammad Ali defeating Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Cleveland Williams, and Ernie Terrell. Yet we never saw just how great a fighter Muhammad Ali would have become.
It must be said that Joe Frazier was unfairly and inaccurately cast by Ali in the role of an establishment Uncle Tom. He was a profoundly decent individual and proud African-American who had defended Ali’s right to practice his Islamic faith and had protested the revocation of Ali’s license to fight. In fact, Frazier had even lent Ali money during the years in which Ali could not earn his living in the ring. So the resentment that Frazier still feels against Ali is most understandable.
For Frazier, the fight represented an opportunity to establish his greatness as a heavyweight champion. Unfortunately and unfairly for Joe Frazier, the fight came to symbolize a conflict between the baby boomer generation and their parents, between anti-war protesters and their World War II veteran fathers, between young black activists and their parents who had been strict adherents of the nonviolence philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Yet as much as I respected Frazier as a person and as a fighter, I loved Ali and still do. He was more than just an outstanding fighter and entertaining personality: he was a generational hero. When the Georgia state athletic commission restored his boxing license and authorized him to fight Jerry Quarry in October, 1970, I was overjoyed.
In the days leading up to Ali-Frazier I, I was apprehensive that Ali may be fighting Frazier too soon after his comeback bout against Quarry. In his battle with Oscar Bonavena in December, 1970, Ali clearly lacked the boxing skills he had possessed in the Folley fight three and a half years earlier; in fact, Bonavena had hurt Ali in the ninth round prior to Ali’s fifteenth round knockout victory.
Ali clearly needed one more tune-up fight prior to meeting Frazier. Yet he would not have that luxury: the Supreme Court was ready to rule on his lower court conviction of the draft law violations, and if the Supreme Court upheld the lower court conviction, Ali would go to jail and never have the opportunity to fight Joe Frazier and regain his heavyweight title.
So as I rode the subway with George to the Aragon, we both expressed our hope that Ali would still have enough boxing skills to regain his title. We entered the Aragon and saw fellow Northwestern senior and All-American running back Mike Adamle in attendance as well. George and I were literally trembling with anticipation as we took our seats.
The blow-by-blow broadcaster for the fight was Don Dunphy, the greatest announcer in boxing history. The color commentator should have been Howard Cosell, but for some inexplicable reason, fight promoter and entertainment mogul Jerry Perenchio picked actor Burt Lancaster for that role. It didn’t really matter, however — the shouting and cheering in the Aragon from the time the fighters entered the ring until the decision for Frazier was announced made it impossible to hear either Dunphy or Lancaster.
I lost my voice cheering for Ali throughout the fight. After ten rounds, Ali had a clear chance at victory. In New York State, scoring was on a round system, with an optional point system if the bout ended in a draw on rounds. Frazier was ahead on the scorecards of the two judges, 7-3 and 6-4 basically due to his effective aggression throughout the first eight rounds.
Ali, however, had clearly won Rounds Nine and Ten and seemed to be forging ahead. In fact, referee Arthur Mercante, in my view the greatest referee in boxing history, had Ali ahead 6-4. If Ali would win four of the remaining five rounds, he would once again be the heavyweight champion of the world.
Then, for Ali, disaster struck in the eleventh round.