March 07, 2011
March, for a sports diehard, is supposed to conjure up memories of past Madness, from Jim Valvano searching frantically for somebody to embrace to Keith Smart hitting the winning jump shot to Tyus Edney driving down the court in the final seconds. But, for me, March conjures memories of another scene, which remains the most significant sporting event of my lifetime, the first Ali-Frazier fight at Madison Square Garden 40 years ago this Tuesday.
The fight was about much more than two men dueling for the undisputed world heavyweight crown. It was about two men representing vastly different versions of our nation in turmoil. With American troops still waging a lost war in Southeast Asia, Ali symbolized a strong challenge to the status quo while Frazier was seen by many as the embodiment of those who were clinging to the past. No doubt these perceptions were way too simplistic, and unfair, especially to Frazier, but they were another example of how much the country was looking for a way to define itself, and its future.
Ali-Frazier I also ushered in the type of hype and hoopla that has become a part – sadly, too great a part – of the sporting landscape ever since. They were on the cover of "Life" and "Time." They did a TV commercial for Vitalis hair products. They were everywhere in those weeks before the fight. On fight night, actor Burt Lancaster – yes, Burt Lancaster – did the color on the closed-circuit telecast with longtime boxing announcer Don Dunphy. Frank Sinatra took photos for "Life." All the stars were out on March 8, 1971.
Then the most amazing thing happened: The fight lived up to its expectations, with Frazier, ready to die in the ring, winning a close 15-round decision – he also recorded the only knockdown – over Ali, who was fighting for just the third time since his three-and-a-half year exile for refusing military service. In defeat, Ali displayed a toughness many didn't believe he possessed. In a sense, both men were victorious that night, as was their sport.
Four decades later, their sport is in trouble, overshadowed by the rising popularity of MMA. Even when boxing produces two big stars such as Manny Pacquaio and Floyd Mayweather Jr., it can't find a way to have them meet in the ring, and bring back some life when it is so sorely needed.
This year, as I do every March 8, I will reflect again on that glorious evening in the Garden, and realize there will never be anything like it. In boxing or any sport.
Michael Arkush, an editor for Yahoo! Sports, is the author of The Fight of the Century, which was released in 2007.