Ali-Frazier 2: A compelling and worthy sequel
“Joe Frazier looked like an easy fight. The money was big, but a lot of fans felt they were being overcharged for a questionable non-title bout.”
That was how the late Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, Muhammad Ali’s former physician, recalled the buildup to the second chapter of boxing’s greatest-ever rivalry when I discussed the fight with him ahead of the bout’s 30th anniversary in January 2014.
Despite dropping and outpointing Ali in the Fight of the Century, on March 8, 1971, Frazier’s star power and fighting form had dipped considerably since that epic night at Madison Square Garden. The Philadelphia warrior had fought just four times in 33 months and had lost his unbeaten record and the heavyweight championship of the world.
George Foreman smashed Frazier into oblivion inside two rounds on January 22, 1973, in Jamaica, and there was talk afterwards that the vicious punishment Ali had dished out in his losing effort had left its mark. When Frazier returned, six months later, against Joe Bugner in London, he looked jaded in outpointing the plucky Brit, which was further evidence that “Smokin’” Joe was all but burned out.
Tragedy followed when Frazier’s beloved trainer-manager, Yancey “Yank” Durham, passed away less than two months after the Bugner fight at the age of 52. “There is no doubt that the relationship between Frazier and Durham was that of two people as ‘one,’” summarized former publisher and editor-in-chief Nat Loubet in an obituary located within the December 1973 issue of The Ring.
Professional decline and personal grief were teeing off on Frazier long before he swapped punches with Ali for a second time on January 28, 1974. Again the pair would throw down at MSG and it was a quick sell out. Ali’s all-too-familiar pre-fight hype routine had incensed Frazier so much that the pair ended up rolling around the floor at the ABC studios in New York City. If you call Joe Frazier “ignorant,” as Ali did, then be prepared for the worst.
The bad blood between the pair was now laden with venom.
On fight night, the crowd was sprinkled with stars while a hoard of world champions, past and present, entered the ring before the main event participants: former featherweight rivals Sandy Saddler and Willie Pep, three-division champ Emile Griffith, former middleweight kings Joey Giardello and Rocky Graziano, ex-light heavyweight champs Willie Pastrano and Jose Torres, and the only two-time heavyweight champ at the time, Floyd Patterson. And on opposite sides of the ring were Ken Norton and reigning heavyweight champion Foreman, who were set to do battle in Caracas, Venezuela, in less than two months.
And then it was fight time.
Ali boxed and moved beautifully in the opening round. Frazier was every bit as quick at closing the gap as he had been in fight one – maybe even quicker – but his vaunted head movement was absent and he caught almost everything that Ali threw. Such was Ali’s dominance in the opening session that he found room to throw in a crowd-pleasing shuffle – a maneuver that he usually executed against weaker opponents.
That confidence had been earned in the gym.
Despite being installed as an 8-5 favorite, Ali refused to underestimate Frazier and for good reason. Almost a year earlier, Ali had suffered a broken jaw and an embarrassing decision loss to the unheralded Norton in San Diego. It was a massive upset and a horrible defeat that persuaded the former champ to stop cutting corners in training. For the Norton rematch, which took place at The Forum in Inglewood, California, he dropped from 221 pounds to 212 – Ali hadn’t been lower than that since knocking out Zora Folley six years earlier – and pulled out a split-decision revenge win over the ex-marine.
Norton was tough stylistically, but Frazier was tough physically, so Ali whipped himself into excellent fighting shape for his second crossroads rematch in four months. He weighed 212 pounds to Frazier’s 209.
But as well-conditioned as Ali was, his susceptibility to the left hook – the punch that Sonny Banks, Henry Cooper and Frazier had all floored him with – was obvious again in Round 2. Smokin’ Joe scored twice with his signature shot, but it was Frazier who was shaken up at the end of that frame. Ali’s accuracy was such that he didn’t just aim for the head; he could target the tip of the chin with precision, and a shocking right cross hit the bullseye. Frazier wobbled and Ali went through the gears in search of a quick finish, only for referee Tony Perez, who believed he’d heard the bell, to intervene with 10 seconds remaining in the round.
Ali’s movement and sharp shooting continued to befuddle Frazier just as it had Norton early on in their rematch. However, as had also been the case against Norton, Ali began to slow down in the second half. Frazier had to up the pace and he did so in the seventh when he landed with two massive left hooks. Ali was still controlling distance and making good use of the jab, but these hellacious bombs were now draining his resources. Frazier scored with a huge right hand at the end of the eighth that bloodied his rival’s nose.
“Joe was one tough son of a bitch,” Pacheco told The Ring in 2014. “He was hurting Ali and the ‘non-fight’ had turned serious. Suddenly, it was a repetition of fight one. Joe had the bulldog-like tenacity and kept pounding Ali’s body.”
Sensing that the tide was turning, Frazier flashed a sinister grin at Ali from across the ring before the bell to begin the ninth. However, Ali had recovered during the rest period and released a series of brilliant combinations that nailed the on-rushing Frazier early in the session. Bulletproof against the best that The Greatest had to offer, Frazier refused to take a backward step, but he was now struggling to get off due to Ali’s well-timed clinches. During the referee’s instructions, future Hall of Famer Eddie Futch, who was upgraded to head trainer-manager following Durham’s death, had quizzed Perez about Ali’s favorite stalling tactic. “I’d like to know what you’re going to do about the wrestling and the pushing?” asked Futch, who had designed the game plans for both Norton and Frazier when they defeated Ali.
“I enforce the rules!” offered Perez confidently.
According to Futch, who studied the fight afterwards, Ali grabbed Frazier around the neck 133 times in 12 rounds. No official warnings were given.
Ali regained control down the stretch, peppering Frazier with headshots while avoiding the lethal hooks coming his way. At the end of 12 rounds, there were some ringside reporters who felt the super-aggressive Frazier had done enough, but Ali took the unanimous decision and avenged his first career defeat. Scoring was on a rounds basis and the three officials handed in tallies of 8-4, 7-4-1 and 6-5-1.
The bout was an official eliminator for the heavyweight championship of the world, and Ali would secure his shot against Foreman, who went on to demolish Norton in two rounds. The rest of course is history.
“Superfight 2” may not have been the Fight of the Century or the Thrilla in Manila, but it was still a terrific prizefight. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find three heavyweight championship bouts since the turn of the century that were better.
Tom Gray is Managing Editor for Ring Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing
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