3. Joe Frazier Vs Muhammed Ali I
March 8, 1971
New York City
Venue: Madison Square Garden
The single, biggest and most significant fight in boxing history occurred the night Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali fought each other for the first time. There have been several books and documentaries about that historic fight. The back story is legendary. Ali had just returned to boxing from a three-year exile for his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War. Ali’s World Heavyweight title was immediately stripped from him. In his absence, Frazier ran roughshod over all the other heavyweights and claimed the vacant title. At the time, my father was incarcerated due to drug possession at the Comstock correctional facility in Upstate New York. The fight was so huge that the inmates were allowed to listen to a round-by-round recap over the radio. Needless to say, the majority of the inmates were rooting for Ali.
Ali was the first fighter that my father idolized from the beginning of his career. My father loved the fact that Ali spoke what was on his mind. His refusal to serve in Vietnam made him an instant hero among underprivileged Blacks and Latinos throughout the United States. The Ali that my father saw fight before his forced exile was the most magnificent fighter he ever saw. Blinding foot and hand speed coupled with the most incredible charisma ever possessed by an athlete.
Frazier was the antithesis of Ali. Frazier was a soft spoken brawler with a left hook from hell. Frazier bob-and-weave style was relentless on his opponents. He wore you down to the body before finishing you off with his signature left hook. The 27-year-old Frazier was not much for talking. He did his talking with his fists. The 29-year-old Ali, his prime stolen from him by the government, had to find a way to summon the speed and velocity he exhibited right before he was exiled in order to defeat the monster that was Frazier.
For several years beginning in the late 1970s, WWOR Channel 9 in New York City would air annually a documentary called “Ali, The Fighter.” The first half of the documentary followed Ali and Frazier the days before the fight. The second half of the documentary was the fight in its entirety with no commentary. Each year the documentary came on, my father and I would watch it together. We never got tired watching this documentary.
Ali looked like the Ali pre-exile as he masterfully moved around and landed several razor sharp combinations against the champion. Ali was 6’3” and stood four inches taller than Frazier. Despite the height differential, Frazier was able to land his signature left hook to the head and body from time to time. The body shots were to try and kill Ali’s movement later on in the fight. Both men were fighting a torrid pace, with Ali getting the better of it through the first five rounds.
Frazier came back strong between rounds six through eight as he trapped Ali against the ropes and landed some of the most vicious left hooks and body shots that any opponent ever did against Ali. The pace that Ali had set in the first five rounds, coupled with this only being his third fight back since his three and a half year exile, had him fatigued and using the ropes to rest. Rounds nine and ten were hotly contested as both men landed big shots on each other. Going into the 11th round, both men had absorbed an enormous amount of punches and were visibly tired.
Frazier landed several ferocious left hooks to the head in the 11th round that badly hurt Ali. A lesser man would’ve been knocked out, but Ali connived his way into surviving what was a very strenuous round for him. Round 12 was more of the same as Frazier lit up Ali’s chin with several more left hooks. The 13th saw both men engage in a toe to toe slugfest, with Frazier landing the harder punches. The 14th was also action packed with Ali landing the more severe punishment. Every time I’ve seen this fight, I had it dead even at seven rounds a piece going into the 15th round.
Seconds into the final round, Frazier landed another devastating left hook to Ali’s jaw that knocked him down for the first and only time in the fight. Ali got up before the count of four and was able to weather the storm enough to survive the round. Both faces showed the effects of the punishment both men dished out. Ali’s right jaw was swollen like a grapefruit. The left eyebrow of Frazier looked like a golf ball had been implanted there. Both men were rushed to the hospital after Frazier was announced as the winner by unanimous decision.
In early 1973, both men lost fights that got in the way of a rematch. Frazier lost his title via second round massacre to George Foreman. Ali was upset by decision to an unknown Ken Norton. Ali would then avenge both his losses to Norton and Frazier before knocking out George Foreman on October 29, 1974 to once again become the Heavyweight Champion of the World. Ali and Frazier would then fight each other for a third and final time. We will revisit this seminal moment in boxing history a little later on.