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Legends talk about their lasting memories of Ali-Frazier I

Frazier, the quintessential left hooker, landed his fair share of rights during the showdown. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Bettmann/Corbis via Getty Images)
08
Mar

Joe Frazier’s face looked like the surface of the moon, disfigured with little peaks and craters around his eyes and cheeks. It was the battered face of a winner—and the reigning heavyweight champion. Other than a very puffy right jaw, Muhammad Ali, it seemed in comparison, barely had a scratch on him.

To those that were there, and those watching, what traversed over 15 elegant rounds of majestic brutality will never be forgotten—nor probably ever repeated.

It’s why the memory of Ali-Frazier I endures half-a-century later.

There were 20,000 that filled Madison Square Garden Monday night, March 8, 1971. There were 300 million more that watched globally on closed-circuit.



Through time, over a billion may say they saw it—and if not saw it, definitely heard about the “The Fight,” as it was dubbed then.

Also staggering were the punchstats, since taken by CompuBox. Frazier landed 378/631(59.9%) total punches, 13/53(24.5%) total jabs and 365/578(63.1%) power punches. The grave misconception through time is that many believed Ali landed more. He didn’t. He connected on 330/893(37%) total punches, 135/440(30.7%) jabs and 195/453(43%) power shots.

Ultimately, for those old enough to be around during those times 50 years ago on this date, Monday, March 8, 1971, witnessing Ali-Frazier I remains one of those indelible moments in their lives—and the greatest single sporting event of the 20th century.

It’s hard to believe, but 50 years ago today, the world paused to watch a boxing match.

Steve Farhood, Showtime’s Hall of Fame broadcaster who was 14 when he and his Uncle Howie were at Manhattan Center watching the fight on closed-circuit TV: “We were close enough to hear the sound of the Garden crowd, but in those days, you were lucky at all if you got sound for a closed-circuit broadcast. The technology then was nowhere as close as it is today. That was standard procedure in the 1970s. I walked up 7th Avenue with my uncle, so we saw what the Garden looked like from outside and it was an amazing picture, with all of the limos and fur coats. We got to Manhattan Center, there was a long line and the fans got impatient and broke the doors down. We never even gave them our tickets, nor did we get seats. I was 14 and pretty short. I arched my neck the whole neck the whole fight to see anything on the screen.

“People broke in and a lot didn’t have tickets. I remember this like it was yesterday when my mother mailed back the tickets and got our money back. We got a whole $20 back, which was a lot in 1971. I also remember, because we didn’t have a seat and the audio wasn’t the best. We left not knowing who got the decision, because we couldn’t hear anything. We were told that Frazier had won, and it looked like he had won, because he dominated the fight.

“There were three things that came out of Frazier-Ali: To those too young to know it or live through it, there was nothing like it to that point, or after that point. Most impressively, the fight, which I’ve seen many times since, surpassed expectations. Finally, it’s very rare in boxing for a fighter to gain a lot of respect through losing. Maybe you can Sugar Ray Leonard in his fight with Roberto Duran. But you have to remember, Ali, the first time around, had barely been touched. Here, against Frazier, he took a beating. He got dropped in the 15th round and got up like nothing happened. The respect he had gained from pure boxing people was like no respect he got at that point. That was a losing effort. We never looked at Ali the same way after that fight.”

Thomas Hauser, Hall of Fame boxing writer who was there in Madison Square Garden the night of Ali-Frazier I and went on to become Ali’s biographer years later: “I was a major Ali fan in early 1971. I read that Ali and Frazier had signed to fight at Madison Square Garden. I’d graduated from Columbia Law School the year before and was clerking for a federal judge prior to a five-year stint as a litigator on Wall Street. The United States Supreme Court had yet to rule on Ali’s appeal of his 1967 conviction for refusing induction into the United States Army. But a recent federal court ruling had allowed him to return to the ring while his appeal was pending.

It was clear that Ali-Frazier would be a memorable event – two great fighters, each one undefeated with a legitimate claim to the heavyweight championship of the world. Just as clearly, it would transcend sports. Tickets for the fight were priced from $20 to $150. The day they went on sale, I bought two mezzanine seats at $20 apiece.

“On fight night, scalpers were getting 10 times those numbers. I went to the fight with a friend. Entering the Garden, I bought an official program that had a LeRoy Neiman painting of Ali and Frazier on the cover. The arena was jammed. There was electricity in the air. Superstars who were accustomed to sitting in the front row on camera were 15 rows from ringside and happy to be there. Frank Sinatra finagled a press credential by agreeing to photograph the fight for Life magazine. Thousands of fans stood outside the arena just to watch the celebrities come in. None of the preliminary fights were slated for more than six rounds.

“As the night wore on, the tension grew. Finally, it was time. People forget how young Ali and Frazier were then. Muhammad was 29, Joe only 27. But even though some of Ali’s greatest ring triumphs lay in the future, he was already growing old as a fighter. So was Joe.

“The fight was close in the early rounds. The crowd was evenly divided. But as the night wore on, Frazier’s fans had more reason to cheer. I remember Ali going to the ropes, beckoning Frazier in. I remember Round 11 when Joe wobbled Muhammad with a big left hook. And most painfully, I remember the 15th round when Frazier hit Ali as hard as a man can be hit and Muhammad went down. At that point, the fight was lost. My hope was that Ali would be able to finish with dignity on his feet. He did, although the decision went against him by an 11-4, 9-6, 8-6-1 margin.

“Ali-Frazier was Muhammad’s first ‘superfight.’ Against Sonny Liston in 1964, Cassius Clay had been widely perceived as nothing more than a kid coming to get beaten up. Ali-Liston II in 1965 drew only 2,000 paying fans. Now, when it mattered most and the world truly cared, ‘The Greatest’ had failed. I left Madison Square Garden that night feeling depressed, but knowing that I had witnessed something historic.”

It was business as usual for Frazier ahead of his biggest-ever fight. (Photo By John Shearer/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

George Foreman, Hall of Fame fighter and two-time heavyweight champion who knocked out Frazier twice, once for the heavyweight title, and lost it to Ali at the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974. Foreman came back to become the oldest heavyweight champion in history when at 45 he knocked Michael Moorer in 1994: “I was sitting ringside that night. I was 23 and coming up. When I walked into the arena, it was nothing like I ever saw before, and I saw some big-time boxing matches before that. I remember Teddy Brenner, who was Madison Square Garden’s matchmaker, came up to me before the fight and said he wanted me to get up in the ring and introduce me. I told him, ‘No you’re not! I’m not going up there with all of these big celebrities here!’ I kept my seat (laughs).

“Frank Sinatra was close to the ring, but the most exciting moment for me pre-fight was seeing Joe Louis with Ash Resnick and they looked like they were stomping the floor as they walked in. Resnick went on to run Caesars Palace later. The night before the fight, I had dinner with Eunice Kennedy, Sargent Schriver’s wife and President (John) Kennedy’s sister. They were so excited, and I remember she reached out to touch my leg, and I remember her saying, ‘What a leg.’ Everyone was talking about boxing. People that you would never expect to talk about boxing. I was dressed sharp and I remember when Ali and Frazier came out. It’s like the world stopped.

“The night belonged to Joe Frazier. I was neutral, but I remember thinking, I don’t want to face either of these guys. Everyone from all over the world came to New York that week. I remember seeing Clyde Frazier and Jimmy Brown, and everyone came over to see them. A lot of celebrities didn’t even come to the fight. They knew New York city was the place to be. What stays me with me all of these years later is that knockdown in the 15th round. Joe hit Muhammad so hard, I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember Bundini Brown (Ali’s assistant trainer under Angelo Dundee) throwing a big wave of water and how far it traveled from Ali’s corner. It hit Ali right in the face. That, I’ll never forget. The water flew right across the ring and hit Ali when he was down. It splashed right on Ali’s face and chest and steamed up as soon as it hit him. I’m sure Bundini got fined for that. Ali was jolted by it. That woke up Muhammad. He got up on his feet and finished. I don’t think Ali would have gotten up if Bundini didn’t splash him with that water. The world came together that night at of all things a boxing match.”

The knockdown that shocked the world.

Larry Merchant, HBO’s Hall of Fame broadcaster who just turned 90 and was the former sports editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, where he hired the legendary Stan Hochman. Merchant at the time of Frazier-Ali I was a New York Post sports columnist: “It was certainly the biggest sports event that I ever covered, because of the tumult and shouting that had gone on prior to the fight. Everyone was choosing up sides long before the event came. Ali represented the new voices heard in the land, the progressive voices, the show biz voices. Not everybody approved of him, and not everyone liked their kids wearing psychedelic clothing and jeans at the time. Expressing yourself through the fight was a way of expressing yourself politically and sartorially in every way. Conservatives didn’t want their kids dressing and sounding that way. The liberals cheered them on. Joe couldn’t be classified as a liberal, but he was a conservative guy from the South. Ali was a guy who came to dance, and change religion and shout into the night.

“You had the Vietnam War going on, and you had conservative people on one side of the line, and liberal people standing on the other side of the line. It became a signal of where you should stand on this extraordinary event. Where you stood on the fight is where you stood on things. Joe was a tough street fighter who was as brave as they came. I covered Super Bowls. I covered the Olympics. No event was as big as Frazier-Ali I. It was the only time in boxing history when two undefeated champions were fighting for the heavyweight championship. That had a lot to do with Ali being the heavyweight champ and being sidetracked (with his stance on the Vietnam War and refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army), and Joe was the heavyweight champion in a more traditional way. Joe was the third coming of Jack Dempsey and Rocky Marciano. Ali was the first coming of Ali. There had never been a big, quick fighter like Ali. In the fact that Ali was a showman and that he had come to represent the liberal causes, as opposed to conservative ones, he meant something to everyone. It was a worldwide event.

“The fight became that rare great event itself, when the fight exceeds the event. One of the things that I thought would go against Ali early in the fight was that the old-school judges and referees would not look kindly on Ali, with some of his clowning and fast-stepping. They thought all of his acting outside the ring was disrespectful, where a lot of the younger fans were amused by it. I had Ali winning. I call myself, along with a handful of newsmen who had Ali, the astigmatic dunces (laughs). I had no quarrel with the result. Joe won the drama of the fight. No one had ever seen Ali get hit with those kinds of big punches, and they were the kind of dramatic punches where everyone in the arena can see. In my experience, fighters get extra credit for that. I don’t know if there were other major events like that before in the Garden, or anything like that since. It was a night filled with crescendo and cascading, throbbing sounds all night long. We’ve all seen big fights. It’s rare the fight turns out bigger than we thought going in.”

Jerry Izenberg, the Hall of Fame boxing writer who is 90 and covered both Ali and Frazier extensively. The amazing Izenberg is still writing for The Newark Star-Ledger, in Newark, New Jersey, though calls Henderson, Nevada, home these days: “I couldn’t make it to the fight, because we got a call that day that my father-in-law had died. I was with Joe all week leading up to the fight, watching all the idiocy. Remembering my age, I saw this country divide before with Charles Lindberg’s America First movement in the 1940s. America was divided over that. Two weeks before Frazier-Ali I, hard hats had a mass fistfight with hippies in Times Square. Muhammad and I were quite close, but Joe and I were quite close, too. Now, I couldn’t go. I did watch later. I knew Ali didn’t win. Ali knew he didn’t win. Though, Ali had half the country thinking it was a political decision. I thought let me get on a train and go to North Philly to see what Joe had to say about it.

“I remember walking into Joe’s Gym on Broad Street and there was this floor-to-ceiling picture of Ali on his ass and Joe moving away. I said, ‘You didn’t waste any time, did you?’ Joe and I went to a local deli and we were going to talk after we ate. We were on a hill and there were these three little kids yelling ‘Joe Frazier, Joe Frazier, Joe Frazier.’ Joe loved it. Joe sent a gopher to get some autographed pictures for the kids. He hands out the pictures and one of the little kids said, ‘My daddy says that Muhammad Ali was drugged.’ I thought Joe was going to hit the kid for a second (laughs). Joe kneels down next to the kid and his face is four inches away when he says, ‘You go home and tell your daddy, he’s right. He was drugged. I drugged him with a left hook!’ The kids run away and Joe turns to me and very emotionally, he says, ‘You know I won that fight. Everyone should know I won that fight. Tell me, what do I have to do? What the hell do I have to do?’ It was very dramatic. We got in the car and went back to Joe’s gym and Joe was telling me a story about the shouting in the ring during the fight.

“Ali always said to me, ‘Why do you write this stuff about me talking in the ring? I don’t talk in the ring.’ Well, he always talked in the ring. Always. He was so much into what he was doing that he didn’t even know he was talking half the time. So, Ali was told before the bell for 15 that he had to knock Joe out to win. Ali starts the round looking like he did before the exile. The jab is going pop, pop, pop, and the right hand is following. Ali looks great for 30 seconds. According to Joe Frazier, and I believe him, Ali is screaming at Joe, ‘Fall, fall, fall, don’t you know you can’t stand up in front of me, because God has willed that I will be the heavyweight champion!’ When he says this last, Frazier lets a left hook go and yells at Ali, ‘Well, God’s going to get his ass whipped tonight!’ Bang, down goes Ali. Joe was steaming even after he won. Twenty-five years after Manila, I did a retrospective. I was on the phone with Ali and I told him he didn’t do anybody any good with that ‘gorilla thing.’ Ali said he was trying to sell tickets.

Ali was getting under Frazier’s skin long before the opening bell. (Photo by John Shearer/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

“I told him he didn’t have to sell tickets. I told Muhammad what my old man told me, never try to bullshit a bullshitter. I let Ali know Joe’s kids used to come home crying because kids said their daddy was a ‘gorilla.’ Ali said he didn’t know that and he was sorry it happened. I didn’t know whether Ali knew or not. Ali asked me to do him a favor and tell Joe something: That he only meant to sell tickets and that he was really sorry about that. I called Frazier and I delivered Ali’s message. Joe said, ‘That’s what he said? I’ll tell you what, tell him to take that apology and shove it up his ass!’ Nobody will ever convince me they made up. They’re both smart guys and knew there were certain situations years later when they had to shake hands. All fighters have a nasty streak, if they’re really good. This wasn’t Joe normally, but years later he would slip it in a conversation to make his point, ‘Look at him now and look at me now.’”

Joe Frazier, who in 1999 spoke to Ring Magazine’s Joseph Santoliquito about Frazier-Ali I: “To me, it was like (preparing) for any other fight. I knew I would beat him. He couldn’t deal with this (holding up his dangerous left hand). Once I touched him with that, he was going to be in trouble. I’ll never forget what that man (Ali) put me through. He didn’t have to say the things that he did, calling me an ‘Uncle Tom,’ and a ‘gorilla.’ It bothered me more that my kids had to hear it. Yeah, I was a ‘Tom,’ a ‘Tom’ for him. I busted my ass so (Ali) could get his (boxing) license back (after Ali had it taken for refusing induction into the military). This is the way I get treated?

“He turned people against me, black people, my people. He brought things into that fight that shouldn’t have been there. I remember the night of the fight how quiet it was (in his dressing room). My son (Marvis) later asked me what I was thinking (before the fight). I told him I prayed to God to help me kill this man, because he’s not righteous. I was never scared of him. Ali tried to play mind games. It backfired. He had to know I wasn’t Sonny Liston. I wasn’t going to roll over for him. His jab gave me trouble, because I got lumped up pretty good. Once I got by that, I knew I could break him down. I was able to take what he gave. He wasn’t able to take what I had. To him, it was a show. To me, it was a fight—a fight I knew I was going to win.”

Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter who has been working for Ring Magazine/RingTV.com since October 1997 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on twitter @JSantoliquito.

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