Fight of the Century
|This article's lead section may not adequately summarize key points of its contents. (March 2015)|
|Date||March 8, 1971|
|Venue||Madison Square Garden
New York City
|Title(s) on the line||Undisputed World Heavyweight Championship
WBC/WBA Heavyweight Championship
|Tale of the tape|
|Frazier won in 15 rounds
via unanimous decision
The Fight of the Century (also known as The Fight) is the title boxing writers and historians have given to the boxing match between WBC/WBA heavyweight champion Joe Frazier (26–0, 23 KOs) and Ring magazine/lineal heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali (31–0, 25 KOs), held on Monday, March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Frazier won in 15 rounds via unanimous decision. It was the first time that two undefeated boxers fought each other for the heavyweight title.
Background and cultural significance
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. Unlike Mathis and Ellis, Frazier was plausibly Ali's superior, which created a tremendous amount of hype and anticipation for a match pitting the two undefeated fighters against one another to decide who was the true heavyweight champ.
Ringside seats were $150 (around $880 in 2016 dollars) and each man was guaranteed 2.5 million dollars. In addition to the millions who watched on closed-circuit broadcast screens around the world, the Garden was packed with a sellout crowd of 20,455 that provided a gate of $1.5 million.
Prior to his enforced layoff, Ali had displayed uncommon speed and dexterity for a man of his size. He had dominated most of his opponents to the point that he had often predicted the round in which he would knock them out. However, in the fight preceding the Frazier fight, Ali struggled at times during his 15th-round TKO of Oscar Bonavena, an unorthodox Argentinian fighter who was prepared by Hall of Fame trainer Gil Clancy.
Frazier had an outstanding left hook, and was a tenacious competitor who attacked the body of his opponent ferociously. Despite suffering from a serious bout of hypertension in the lead-up to the fight, he appeared to be in top form as the face-off between the two undefeated champions approached.
The fight held broader meaning for many Americans, as 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. According to the 2009 documentary Thriller in Manila, the match, which had been dubbed "The Fight", "gripped the nation. "Just listen to the roar of this crowd!" thundered Burt Lancaster, the color man. "The tension, and the excitement here, is monumental!"
On the evening of the match, Madison Square Garden had a circus-like atmosphere, with scores of policemen to control the crowd, outrageously 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 LeRoy 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 itself exceeded even its promotional hype and went the full 15-round championship distance. Ali dominated the first three rounds, peppering the shorter Frazier with rapier-like jabs that raised welts on the champion's face. In the closing seconds of round three, Frazier connected with a tremendous hook to Ali's jaw, snapping his head back. Frazier began to dominate in the fourth round, catching Ali with several of his famed left hooks and pinning him against the ropes to deliver tremendous 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 keep the pace he had set in the first third of the fight. At 1 minute and 59 seconds into round eight, following his clean left hook to Ali's right jaw, Frazier grabbed Ali's wrists and swung Ali into the center of the ring; however, Ali immediately grabbed Frazier again until they were once again separated by Mercante.
Frazier caught Ali with a left hook at nine seconds into round 11. Ali fell with both gloves and his right knee on the canvas. 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 signaled the fighters to engage once again. Round 11 wound down with Frazier staggering Ali with a left hook. Ali stumbled and grabbed at Frazier 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 clowning his way back to his corner.
At the end of round 14 Frazier held a lead on all three scorecards (by scores of 8–6–0, 10–4–0, and 8–6–0). Early in round 15, Frazier landed a 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 several terrific blows 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.
|Artie Aidala (judge)||A||A||F||F||F||F||F||A||A||F||F||F||A||A||F||Frazier, 9–6–0|
|Bill Recht (judge)||F||A||F||F||A||F||F||F||A||F||F||F||F||A||F||Frazier, 11–4–0|
|Art Mercante (referee)||A||A||F||F||F||A||A||F||A||A||F||F||F||F||F||Frazier, 9–6–0|
Ali, for his part, refused to publicly admit defeat and sought to define the outcome in the public's mind as a "White Man's Decision". He split two bouts with Ken Norton in 1973, and was viewed by many as on the downward slide before coming on in 1974 to win a rematch with Frazier in January. Ali later went on to defeat Frazier in their third and final bout, The Thrilla in Manila. By the time of the rematches the social climate in America had settled down, with the Vietnam War coming to an end. Many dismissed the notion that Ali was a traitor and he was once again accepted as an American hero. Without either fighter representing the social divide in the country, neither their second nor third fight lived up to the hype of the first. Ali shocked the world for a second time with a victory in October 1974 over the heavily favored Foreman to regain the heavyweight title in The Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire.
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- on YouTube