BY EVAN WEINER
Sometime after Joe Frazier’s boxing career was done he eagerly explained to me that he was very excited about his latest endeavor. He was going to appear in Atlantic City with another boxing heavyweight champion in an event. It seemed somebody wanted Frazier and Holmes to sing and thought having the former champions on stage in an Atlantic City casino was a good idea. Smokin’ Joe said come on down to Atlantic City and watch the show.
I never did but I always thought Frazier and Holmes on stage would remind me of some of the acts on the long departed “The Gong Show” and maybe that’s why I never went. Smokin’ Joe was part of the greatest one night boxing show ever when boxing still mattered and when there was panache to the title of World Heavyweight Boxing Champion in a business that was glamorized.
Frazier helped bring boxing to a popularity peak back in 1971 when he fought Muhammad Ali on March 8 of that year. As it turned out, the Ali-Frazier trilogy was the beginning of the end for boxing as a major attraction. In the 1950s boxing was a major television staple and when you talked sports in the United States, baseball, boxing and horse racing were at the top of the heap as sports businesses in 1950.
40 years ago, boxing still caught the imagination of the “beautiful” people and the everyday person.
The late Don Dunphy was the voice of boxing for more than 40 years doing all sorts of fights on radio and TV. He was the blow-by-blow announcer for what may have been boxing’s biggest night ever back on March 8, 1971 when Ali took on Frazier at Madison Square Garden in New York in “The Fight of the Century.”
Dunphy, years later, did not think the Ali-Frazier fight was “The Fight of the Century” and in fact it probably was not even in the top 5 fights he ever called on radio and TV. But the long time boxing announcer felt that it probably was the most spectacular boxing event ever held.
The Ali-Frazier contest had one of the most massive publicity campaigns ever held to promote a fight. Ali was the villain to some while Frazier was a hero and it all had to do with the Vietnam War. Ali refused to be inducted into the military in 1967 because he objected to the war while Frazier might have served if asked.
Ali lost his boxing license and the ability to fight because of his legal problems in refusing to serve and while he was away from the ring Frazier was dismantling his opponents.
Ali had won all of his 31 fights prior to the Frazier bout. Smokin’ Joe Frazier was victorious in all 26 of his fights. Both fighters were guaranteed a big payday as each man was given $2.5 million, a record purse, for just showing up. Ali and Frazier were not the only two in attendance that night. It was more than a fight; it was a gala event for celebrities as the biggest names in show biz flocked to the Garden. Burt Lancaster was the analyst with Dunphy on the closed circuit presentation of the fight which was shown in movie theaters across the United States even though the actor had never done any sports or boxing commentary in his life.
Woody Allen, who was getting his acting and movie career into the fast lane, was there. Diana Ross without the Supremes as she had just separated from the group and Dustin Hoffman were watching. The world was watching as well.
“I did an awful lot of fights, some were more important than others and some were better fights than others. But if you make me pick one, I have to pick the first Ali-Frazier fight in 1971 at the Garden,” said Dunphy. “Not the greatest fight of all time. A good fight but not great. But it was the most memorable evening that I ever remember.
“I think it was the greatest sports event of all time up to that time anyway. Bigger than the World Series, bigger than the Super Bowl or what. I just think that night….we had two undefeated champions, both of them great fighters Ali and Frazier and that to me stands out.”
Dunphy had a seat to history and probably had the biggest audience listening to him in his career but in many ways, the Ali-Frazier fight to him was just another bout.
“I always said to myself, I am not going to see any punches that I haven’t seen before and that was my attitude from the beginning,” said the long time boxing announcer. “The first big fight I ever did was Joe Louis and Billy Conn in 1941, 30 years earlier but I said to myself, keep calm you are not going to see anything you never saw before and that has always been my attitude. It doesn’t matter, if you are broadcasting to one or nobody or several million, it is the same show.
“I always recall up in the ring after the Ali-Frazier fight, I went up to get an interview with Joe Frazier, who had won the fight, and I went to one of the commissioners who had been in the ring and I said what do you think? He said, off-the-record. I said, off-the-record, there are 250 million people watching, you can’t be off the record.
“That was about the audience for that fight.”