Fight of the Century
|Date||March 8, 1971|
|Venue||Madison Square Garden, New York City|
|Title(s) on the line||WBA/WBC/The Ring/Lineal Heavyweight Championships|
|Tale of the tape|
|Frazier won in 15 rounds unanimous decision|
Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier, billed as the "Fight of the Century" (also known as The Fight), was the boxing match between WBC/WBA heavyweight champion Joe Frazier (26–0, 23 KOs) and The Ring/lineal heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali (31–0, 25 KOs), held on Monday, March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
It was the first time that two undefeated boxers fought each other for the heavyweight title. It is widely regarded as the biggest fight in history and as arguably the most anticipated and hyped sporting event ever. Frazier won in 15 rounds via unanimous decision. It was the first of a trilogy, followed by the rematch fights Super Fight II (1974) and Thrilla in Manila (1975), both won by Ali.
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 (equivalent to $947 in 2019) and each man was guaranteed $2.5 million. 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!"
The bout was noted for its broad appeal to non-boxing and non-sport fans, many of whom held an intense rooting interest in one of the fighters. Prior to the fight, Mark Kram wrote in Sports Illustrated:
The thrust of this fight on the public consciousness is incalculable. It has been a ceaseless whir that seems to have grown in decibel with each new soliloquy by Ali, with each dead calm promise by Frazier. It has magnetized the imagination of ring theorists, and flushed out polemicists of every persuasion. It has cut deep into the thicket of our national attitudes, and it is a conversational imperative everywhere—from the gabble of big-city salons and factory lunch breaks rife with unreasoning labels, to ghetto saloons with their own false labels.
As Gil Clancy, who was in Frazier's corner that night, would later comment:
The electricity in the air then was just unbelievable. If they would have dropped the bomb on Madison Square Garden that night, the country wouldn't been able to run.
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 to Woody Allen. Frank Sinatra, having been unable to procure a ringside seat, took photographs for Life magazine instead. Nelson Mandela, who was in prison in South Africa during this fight, spoke about how excited everybody was for this fight. 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 fight was sold to, and broadcast by closed circuit, to 50 countries in 12 languages via ringside reporters to an audience estimated at 300 million, a record viewership for a television event at that time. Riots broke out at several venues as unresolvable technical issues interrupted the broadcast in several cities in the third round. And, although no live radio coverage of the fight itself was allowed under the terms of the promotion, the Mutual Radio Network did broadcast the fight, the night of March 8th, with announcers Van Patrick and Charles King, together with many other sports commentators, providing round-by-round summaries live as they came out over the UPI and AP wire services.
The fight itself exceeded even its promotional hype and went the full 15-round championship distance. Ali dominated the first two 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. A fraction of a second later, slipping on water in Frazier's corner, Ali fell with both gloves and his right knee to the canvas. Mercante stepped between Ali and Frazier, separating them as Ali rose. Mercante wiped Ali's gloves and waved "no 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.
Heading into Round 15 all three judges had Frazier In the lead (7–6–1, 10–4–0, and 8–6–0), and Frazier closed convincingly. Early in the round Frazier landed a left hook that put Ali on the canvas. Ali, his jaw swollen noticeably, got up at the count of four, 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||E||F||F||F||Frazier, 8–6–1|
22 of the 25 sports writers also gave the fight to Frazier.
Viewership and revenue
The fight was broadcast live pay-per-view on theatre television in the United States, where it set a record with 2.5 million tickets sold at closed-circuit venues, grossing $45 million. It was also shown closed-circuit during the middle of the night in London theatres, where it set a record with 90,000 tickets, grossing $750,000. Combined, the fight sold 2.59 million tickets in the United States and London, grossing $45.75 million (inflation-adjusted $300 million).
On both closed-circuit and free television, the fight was watched by a record 300 million viewers worldwide. It was watched by a record 27.5 million viewers on BBC1 in the United Kingdom, about half of the British population. It was also watched by an estimated 5.4 million viewers in Italy, and 2 million viewers in South Korea.
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 a downward slide before a win in a rematch with Frazier in January 1974. 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. People who supported Frazier on March 8th so they could see Ali get beat, had no use for Joe on March 9th so as Ali's reputation grew Frazier's was sure to get smaller. 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.
Ali biographer Wilfrid Sheed wrote of the fight:
Both men left the ring changed men that night. For Frazier, his greatness was gone, that unquantifiable combination of youth, ability and desire. For Ali, the public hatred he had so carefully nursed to his advantage came to a head and burst that night and has never been the same. To his supporters he became a cultural hero. His detractors finally gave him grudging respect. At least they had seen him beaten and seen that smug look wiped off his face.
Historian Bert Sugar said:
"As Ali's image and myth and name and reputation grew, Joe's was sure to suffer. The winner that night was the loser and the loser that night was the winner."
The fight provided cover for an activist group, the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI, to successfully pull off a burglary at an FBI office in Pennsylvania, which exposed the COINTELPRO operations that included illegal spying on activists involved with the civil rights and anti-war movements. One of the COINTELPRO targets was Muhammad Ali, which included the FBI gaining access to his records as far back as elementary school.
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- "Thriller in Manila". Top Documentary Films. 2009. Retrieved January 16, 2013.
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- Frazier, Joe; Berger, Phil (2013). Smokin’ Joe: The Autobiography of a Heavyweight Champion of the World, Smokin’ Joe Frazier. AudioGO. p. 104. ISBN 9781620642160.
- Ryan, Joe (2013). Heavyweight Boxing in the 1970s: The Great Fighters and Rivalries. McFarland. p. 65. ISBN 9780786492497.
- "The Promoters Loved the Fight But Some Fans Call It 'a Bore'". Detroit Free Press. March 10, 1971.
- "'Bugner's British Bunch' Travels To See Ali Bout". The News-Press. February 2, 1973.
- "History of Prizefighting's Biggest Money Fights". Bloody Elbow. SB Nation. August 24, 2017.
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The annual Miss World Contest, which is often the single most popular program of the year — attracting half the British population — is a natural for BBC 1; so was the Ali-Frazier fight, which was watched by 27.5 million people.
- "Joe Keeps Crown". The Terre Haute Tribune. March 9, 1971.
- "Most Boxing Buffs Agree With Outcome". Poughkeepsie Journal. March 9, 1971.
- "Foreman beats Frazier to win heavyweight title in Jamaica" Archived 2019-06-07 at the Wayback Machine, "This Day in History – 1/22/1973". History.com. Retrieved January 16, 2013.
- "Foreman stops Frazier in 2nd". Milwaukee Sentinel. Associated Press. January 23, 1973. p. 1-part 2.
- Hudson Jr, David (2006). Combat Sports; An Encyclopedia of Wrestling, Fighting, And Mixed Martial Arts. Westport CT: Greenwood Press. pp. 6, 7.
- Sheed, Wilfrid (1975). Muhammad Ali: A Portrait in Words and Photographs. Crowell Publishing. ISBN 9780690009583. Retrieved May 12, 2017.
- Medsger, Betty (June 6, 2016). "In 1971, Muhammad Ali Helped Undermine the FBI's Illegal Spying on Americans". The Intercept. Retrieved April 17, 2017.
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