Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier: Remembering ‘The Fight of the Century’ on its 50th anniversary

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When an event is billed as the Fight of the Century before a punch is even thrown, it is almost impossible to finish in anything but failure.

But the first meeting between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, which took place 50 years ago this week, not only superseded its pre-bout hype, its legend has only grown in the decades since.

Forget Floyd Mayweather, Ricky Hatton, Conor McGregor, Jake Paul or any other motormouth fighter who has laced on a glove in the last 20 years.

Most of them are merely producing pale imitations of the Ali-Frazier rivalry to flog their fights. On March 8, 1971, we saw the original and best.

Frazier, 29, was a fearsome, unbeaten champion with 23 KOs in 26 fights and a fabled left hook. Ali, 29, was a slick, unbeaten ex-champion who had been stripped of his title and his boxing license four years earlier when he refused to be drafted for military service in the Vietnam War.

He had been a controversial figure ever since he had changed his name from Cassius Clay after ‘shocking the world’ for the first time by stopping the brutal, ‘unbeatable Sonny’ Liston in 1964. His refusal to answer his country’s call three years later cemented his role as a ‘hate figure’ in the US establishment.

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During his ban, Ali had scraped out a living by speaking at universities, acting and singing. He received financial assistance from Frazier, who also petitioned Congress to get his rival’s punishment overturned and even drove him to the White House for the hearing.

After his return, Ali boxed only twice before taking on his arch rival and, perhaps understandably, his stamina would fail him late in the fight. But then the champion also had health issues.

A long-standing problem with high-blood pressure flared on the day of the fight and NYPD detective Joe Coffey, who provided security for Frazier, witnessed the fight doctor being bribed to alter his diagnosis and let the bout go ahead.

The cop also ensured his charge was booked into numerous different hotels for the fight in order to confuse the Black Muslims, a group the challenger had formally joined the day after beating Liston and were rumoured to be planning disruption in Frazier’s camp.

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Referee Arthur Mercante was only told of his appointment on the afternoon of the bout in order to stop interference of any kind.

But then Ali had his own issues. Overwhelming crowds meant he could not leave Madison Square Garden after the weigh-in on the eve of the fight. He ate in one of the cafés and just stayed over.

Before they walked to the ring, both men had already earned a guaranteed $2.5m. The eventual television audience was estimated at 300m - more people than had watched the moon landing a couple of years earlier.

Over 2.5m tickets were sold at closed-circuit television venues and 50 per cent of the UK population watched at home. Halfway around the world, Nelson Mandela was excitedly watching grainy, black and white pictures in prison, meanwhile, Frank Sinatra was at the ring apron taking pictures for Life Magazine.

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Between the time the fight was first mooted and the opening punches were thrown, it was clear that certain key narratives had altered. Frazier was angry and intensely motivated. He felt Ali’s merciless taunting in the build-up had crossed the line from salesmanship to demeaning him as a proud black man.

Meanwhile, as opinion towards the Vietnam War had changed, the public perception began to soften somewhat towards Ali. Yet, there was an ideological dichotomy at the heart of this bout with Frazier, the blue-collar, establishment champion and the challenger, the lippy darling of the left-wing who had dodged the draft.

Ali started quickly and his trainer Angelo Dundee thought he would finish the fight in the first. But it soon became clear that the enforced absence had left his fighter less elusive than he had once been. Ali no longer floated like a butterfly and he had never truly stung like a bee. However, this contest provided the first indication of the quality that would be the backbone of his success in the second half of his career – the ability to soak up punishment.

The bobbing, weaving Frazier detonated a trademark left hook in the eighth but Ali somehow stayed upright. The challenger dropped to one knee in the 11th only for it to be ruled a slip. However, in the 15th there was no escape. Frazier whipped in another brutal left, Ali went over and, although he recovered to hear the final bell, the fight was lost. The champion retained his title with a unanimous decision.

Both fighters went to hospital after the fight but Frazier stayed overnight and rumours ran rife that he might die. Ali prepared to make a trip to his bedside.

Frazier would lose his title in two destructive rounds to George Foreman 22 months later and then to Ali again just before the latter pair met in the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974. Ali would soak up Foreman’s brutal punishment on the ropes before snatching his crown in spectacular fashion.

Less than a year later, he would make a fourth defence of his title against Frazier in the Philippines. Trainer Eddie Futch pulled out the challenger after perhaps the most brutal 14 rounds in boxing history. Frazier took years to forgive his cornerman for his actions at the Thrilla in Manilla.

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He never absolved Ali for his perceived betrayal and lived out his final years living in near poverty in a one-room apartment above his old gym in Philadelphia. Ali, who was stricken by Parkinson’s Disease in his later years, went to the funeral and described his old adversary as “the second greatest of all-time”.

One writer summed it up: “These two fought for the heavyweight championship of each other.”

Quite simply, theirs was a sporting rivalry unmatched before or since.

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