Fight Of The Century: Ali-Frazier Was The introduction

Madison Square Garden

Back in March of 1971, I was a 14-year old with decisions to make of what high school to attend. A block away was the local CYO boxing gym in the Bronx. Then, baseball was my sport and boxing was seen often with a weekly fight series on the antenna television in your living room, before cable TV became a dominant force.

So everyone was discussing the big fight approaching and the Vietnam War. Later, I would walk in that boxing gym and have a few and unsuccessful amateur fights. In the classroom, my teachers were talking about Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. Boxing then, to me, was in the infancy stages. Everyone knew about Ali. The headlines as the heavyweight champion and his stance about the ongoing war were always news.

You could not miss the front page headlines on newsstands when there were six or seven dailies to read, and I read them all in an era way before social media. I started that identification with Ali and Frazier and their fight at Madison Square Garden.

It was supposed to be called a fight for the heavyweight title. It became “The Fight of The Century.” Fifty years later, much has changed. Boxing has also changed as we commemorate that historic fight at the Garden.

My late mentor Bert Sugar, the boxing writer/historian, who was very much responsible for getting my passion growing more and more for the sport. In one of his many books on the sport, “The Ultimate Book of Boxing Lists” has Joe Frazier vs. Muhammad Ali as the third most significant fight in history.

Joe Louis vs. Max Schmelling II, June 22, 1938 at Yankee Stadium was listed as number one, a rematch of a bout two years before when Schmelling knocked out the then undefeated Louis in 12 rounds. That was heavyweight boxing and the face of the sport at a time when New York City was the fight capital of the world.

Madison Square Garden was known as the “Mecca” of boxing. Ali and Frazier and that night fifty years ago fittingly belonged there.

Bert Sugar wrote: “This was more than just a showdown at Boxing’s Mecca between two undefeated heavyweight champions. Ali-Frazier set up as a war between two fighters with vastly different personalities, styles, faiths and in the middle of their supporters’ views on the ongoing Vietnam War still bitterly dividing America. In a fight that acquitted its build-up, Joe Frazier knocked Ali down in the 15th round to secure a unanimous decision.”

In a nutshell, the rest is history. Boxing was on the map again as it was when you had names like Louis, Schmelling. Archie Moore, Willie Pep, Sugar Ray Robinson, and the undefeated heavyweight king Rocky Marciano entering the ring. You can credit Ali and Frazier.

It was a fight that introduced closed circuit theatre, viewed in 350 locations and generated $2 million in revenue based on 2.5 million tickets sold. If you did not have a ticket for the Garden, the alternative was closed circuit theatre which later evolved to be pay-per-view boxing.

Turn the clock ahead. Frazier and Ali in this era would be the record pay-per-view holders with social media and the buildup which describes the magnitude as to how it was back in March of 1971.

“It was magical.” said former heavyweight contender Gerry Cooney, 14-years old at the time. “People in Vietnam stopped the war to watch the fight. It was magic in the ring and around the ring.”

Norman Mailer, Woody Allen, and Frank Sinatra, because he could not get a ringside seat, took photographs for Life Magazine. Artist LeRoy Neiman painted Ali and Frazier as they slugged in the ring. Burt Lancaster served as a color commentator for the closed circuit broadcast.

So, yes it was a magical night at the Garden. And it was Hall of Fame promoter Bob Arum who played a key role in getting Ali and Frazier to meet in the first of three fights. The first fight was memorable because there was a resentment about Ali and his stance against the war.

The fight became a political statement. Ali was not the popular fighter and Frazier was becoming the hero. Boxing was a way to settle their differences and the fight delivered two of the top heavyweights along with the beginnings of Hall of Fame promoter Bob Arum.

Championship fights back then were 15-rounds. The referee was also a part of the round-by-round scoring and the late Arthur Mercante had it 8-6-1. Some had it 9-6 Frazier. Years later, after watching the tapes more than once, I also had 9-6 Frazier.

“It polarized,” Arum said. “A majority of fans were for Frazier. Ali called Frazier ‘The White Man’s Uncle Tom.” Ali used to get under Frazier’s skin. Going into that fight I believed Ali was invincible.”

Larry Holmes, not too much later, was a part of that heavyweight championship picture. The Hall of Famer also was a friend of Ali and Frazier and back then, more than now, the fight game was a fraternity.

Holmes said, despite the animosity and words, Frazier was never bitter and an enemy of Ali. When Ali needed some financial support Joe Frazier was there for him.

“Joe didn’t love the name calling but he took it to Ali when he fought him,” Frazier said.

Yes, this was the “Fight of the Century” because there were so many aspects to that magical event before, during, and after. In many ways Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier will always be remembered for that night fifty years ago at Madison Square Garden.

A fight before my time as a journalist who has covered many at ringside over the years. It was two fighters that changed boxing history because it was the beginning of a big time spectacle that would later generate major revenue in a lucrative pay-per-view industry.

“The Fight Of The Century” opened the door for many more to attempt what Ali and Frazier did at the Garden that night in March of 1971.

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About the Author

Rich Mancuso

Rich has covered countless New York Mets, Yankees, and MLB teams along with some of the greatest boxing matches over the years. He is an award winning sports journalist and previously worked for The Associated Press, New York Daily News, Gannett, and BoxingInsider.com, in a career that spans almost 40 years.

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