Sunday, July 14, 2024  |

By Tris Dixon | 

GENE KILROY, THE LAST SURVIVING MEMBER OF MUHAMMAD ALI’S INNER CIRCLE, SHARES HIS MEMORIES AND INSIGHT ON THE NIGHT JOE FRAZIER WOULD NOT BE DENIED

“It scared the heck out of me,” said Gene Kilroy.

Muhammad Ali’s business manager watched as Ali landed flat on his back, triggering just about every flashbulb in Madison Square Garden.

Smokin’ Joe Frazier had launched forward behind his almighty left hook and Ali plummeted to the deck.



It was a dramatic moment that has echoed through every meaningful heavyweight highlight reel since.

Ali rose at around four and held on to the top rope with his left glove, trying to stop the arena from spinning.

It may have been one of the great punches, but it wasn’t enough to put Ali out.

Frazier surged forward trying to finish it, but Ali fought with him, showing typical courage and bravery.

“But he could always regroup,” Kilroy added of his friend. “He jumped back up, and a lot of people said with how he finished it he could have won the round if he didn’t have the knockdown.”

Regardless, the round was lost and so was the battle. Frazier won on points. The war … that would rage for years, of course, as Ali and Frazier pivoted between respectful animosity and plain animosity.

***

It was billed as The Fight of the Century and it delivered on that incredible promise. Historically it’s sometimes been a case of the bigger the fight, the bigger the letdown, but on that memorable night in 1971, Frazier and Ali went above and beyond, delivering a physical and emotional masterpiece that encapsulated the very best of what boxing has to offer. It is why it was not only the Fight of the Century but one of the must-see events of the century.

Gene Kilroy (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/WireImage for Liz Claiborne Inc)

“Listen, the VIPs … there were horses outside walking them in,” remembered Kilroy. “I got tickets for Teddy Kennedy and his sister Pat – I think I got them four tickets – but it was unbelievable. Budd Schulberg wrote that he’d never seen so many fur coats in his life – and they were on the men!”

Ringside seats were going for $150 (around $1,000 in today’s money) and the 20,455 in attendance helped the fighters net $5 million between them. 

The likes of Burt Lancaster, Barbra Streisand, Dustin Hoffman, Sammy Davis Jr. and any number of celebrities – entirely from the A-list – filled the rows ringside, alongside gangsters and local dignitaries, and Frank Sinatra was there on the ring apron, shooting pictures for Life magazine.

“It was a spectacular occasion,” said Kilroy. “Everybody who was anybody was there.”

Kilroy, who had amazing experiences as part of Ali’s inner circle, is not one to overuse superlatives, so when he says “It was unbelievable,” it is not to be taken lightly. “I remember there were some crazy people in the ringside seats, and all of a sudden [former] Vice President (Hubert) Humphrey came in, they were his seats and they almost had a fight getting the guys that didn’t belong there out. It was unbelievable.”

***

There were some who contested that the Ali who squared up to Frazier the first time was not back to full fighting fitness following his three-and-a-half-year absence from boxing.

He’d beaten Jerry Quarry, but for Kilroy it was the next fight and the one before Frazier that showed his man was not only back, but that he was ready for the great Philadelphian. “Listen,” said the no-nonsense Kilroy, who now lives in Las Vegas with his treasure trove of priceless memories. “You’ve got to remember, Ali came back and knocked out Oscar Bonavena and no one ever knocked him down – so you can’t say he wasn’t ready.” 

Singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was an interested observer at The Fight. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

With those notable scalps, and with Frazier coming in having stopped Quarry, WBA heavyweight titleholder Jimmy Ellis and light heavyweight king Bob Foster, the stage was set.

“Muhammad was happy; he was relaxed, he was glad to be there, but Joe Frazier was unbelievable,” explained Kilroy, who was with Ali the day of the fight. 

“When Ali went to the Garden for the weigh-in, we stayed there for the fight that night. His brother fought on the undercard and got beat (Rahaman lost to Danny McAlinden in a six-rounder), but nobody would have beaten Joe Frazier that night.”

That’s a line Kilroy allows himself to say with some regularity. He is full of respect for Joe despite his involvement in the other camp.

“You can’t take anything away from him; he was a great heavyweight,” Gene said. “Look at the division – from 1964 to 1974, you had the best heavyweights of all time. Any one of those would have been a heavyweight champion today. Joe was a great heavyweight. He fought everybody. He didn’t duck anybody. He put on a good show. The fans were happy.”

***

“The day after the fight, we drove the bus home to Cherry Hill, where Ali was living after I moved him out of Philadelphia, out of Pennsylvania where he didn’t have to pay the big tax on wages,” said Kilroy of what happened next. “After that fight, even with that jaw (swollen from the left hook knockdown), Ali didn’t want to get it checked out in the hospital; he didn’t want people saying Frazier had put him in hospital (Frazier was in the hospital). So Herbert Muhammad and I were in the car, and we took Ali to this doctor and he didn’t have a broken jaw; he had a dislocation.”

Kilroy is one of those that if it involved Ali and it actually happened, he can verify because he was there. 

“I’ll tell you something,” he continued. “About a week after the fight, I was in New York with Ali and I got a call from Budd Schulberg, and Budd Schulberg said, ‘I heard Joe Frazier died [from his injuries].’ I called Joe’s doctor in Philadelphia, and he said, ‘No, Joe was in the hospital and his blood pressure is real high and all, and he’s got some blood clots, but he’s going to be OK.’ When Budd Schulberg told Ali that, Ali said, ‘If that happens, I will never fight again.’ When they said he was OK, Ali sat down and prayed and thanked Allah for keeping this man alive.”

***

Frazier and Ali had been friends in the 1960s, but they became the best of enemies. They elevated one another in the ring and they raised one another’s celebrity outside of the ring. Ali could get anti-Frazier headlines going viral (for the time!) with his cruel teasing and taunting.

“You’ve got to remember about Ali: Ali never disliked anybody,” Kilroy explained of the rivalry. “Ali would talk about fighters before the fights to sell tickets, [but] after the fight, they were his best friend, you know. That was Muhammad. He didn’t dislike anybody. But I remember years later – I was very close to Joe Frazier – Joe told me, ‘How would you like your kids going to school’ – he had young kids at the time – ‘and kids saying your daddy’s a gorilla.’ He said, ‘[Ali] took it too far. I hate him.’ He didn’t like him. I said, ‘Joe, someday, we’re going to sit down in a park, the three of us and talk, and we’re going to have a good time.’ But that never happened.” 

Frazier’s constant pressure set a blistering pace. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Instead, the heavyweight icons fought twice more. Ali won both, getting his revenge on points over 12 back in the Garden in 1974 and then taking the decider via stoppage after Round 14 in Manila the following year. They remained at odds, off and on, over the rest of their lives, but after the Fight of the Century, it wasn’t known that the two would spend a lifetime inextricably linked.

“There was no indication about a trilogy. Now let me tell you about the second fight … People ask me what was Ali’s best fight. I say the second Frazier fight. The day after that one, we walked all the way down 7th Avenue to Madison Square Garden. Ali had no bruises, no cuts, no bangs; he was dressed sharply and he held a press conference. To me, that was his best fight, when he was not hurt. 

“The toughest fight in the world was the one in Manila. I saw those guys banging each other, banging and banging, and I said they should abolish boxing. That was a murder fight – for both fighters.”                

***

Ali and Frazier grew old and their paths crossed from time to time. Then, in 2011, Joe died and Ali went to pay his respects.

“I took Muhammad Ali to Joe Frazier’s funeral in Philadelphia and the minister who spoke, he was very articulate, he remembered when Howard Cosell said, ‘Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!’ (when Joe was whipped by George Foreman) – [Cosell] became famous for that – but Muhammad Ali came back and knocked out Foreman, and up came Joe Frazier right after that [to face Ali again]. It was right on tune,” smiled Kilroy. 

Of course, the Fight of the Century was immortalized for eternity, be it in the written word by the likes of Mailer and Schulberg, on YouTube, or in one of Sinatra’s photographs from that night.

A credentialed Frank Sinatra wanted to be as close to the action as possible. (Photo by Robert Riger/Getty Images)

“Jilly (Rizzo) had a bar in New York called Jilly’s, and they auctioned the pictures off and Sinatra signed them, and they asked Ali and I to go there, and Ali signed the pictures,” said Kilroy. “Sinatra liked Ali. He said he didn’t like him at first, but everything Muhammad said he would do, Ali did. Sinatra was a big Joe Louis fan. He helped Joe many, many times, and when Ali fought Larry Holmes in Caesars Palace, Sinatra was appearing there and he was sitting ringside about three rows back, and I had a security guard move two chairs over and put them (Louis and Sinatra) right by the ring. Then, Sinatra said that night (after Holmes had beaten the ghost of Ali), ‘There’s a man in a room upstairs, he has nothing to be ashamed of. He’s truly a great man, he has a great heart and he’s a champion in and out of the ring’. That was the tribute Sinatra gave to Ali.”

Frazier and Ali were two of the great heavyweights of all time. That’s undeniable. And on that night in 1971, Frazier was simply the better man. 

He won the Fight of the Century against one of the men of the century.    

“That night, nobody would have beaten Frazier,” said Kilroy. “Nobody, in my opinion.”

And for a man who has seen as much as Gene, and who was in the opposite camp, you cannot get any fairer than that.