Fight of the Century? Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier put on the event of all-time on March 8, 1971

Kevin Iole
Boxing Experts Blog

It's been 42 years and still, there is not a bout that even comes remotely close to being as massive as was the March 8, 1971, heavyweight title fight at Madison Square Garden between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.

As significant as a Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight would have been, it would have paled in comparison to the intense worldwide interest that there was in the Ali-Frazier bout.

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It remains one of the signature events in not only boxing history, but in sports history.

They were both undefeated men in the primes of their careers with a claim to the heavyweight title. It doesn't get much bigger than that.

Millions upon millions of words have been written about that event and dozens of books. In the prologue of his 2006 autobiography, "Inside the Ropes," the late referee Arthur Mercante Sr. recounts the story of how excited he was to find out on the morning of the event that he'd been chosen to officiate it.

At four o'clock the phone rang, ending the suspense I pretended not to feel. It was Commissioner Edwin Dooley of the New York State Athletic Commission. He was short and to the point: "Mr. Mercante, it's yours. Report for assignment at the Garden at 6 p.m.

"Yes, sir," I replied with what I thought, under the circumstances, was commendable brevity. "It's yours," meant I was the one. I had landed right in the middle of the fight of the century. I could hardly believe it. When I hurried out of the office that late afternoon I felt I was floating on air.

The great British sports writer, Hugh McIvanney, wrote on March 8, 1971, about how significant Ali was viewed in the world even then. He's grown to epic stature now, but even at the time, Ali was far more than just a great boxer.

For more than a decade now, whether calling himself Cassius Clay or Muhammad Ali, the man has sought the whole world as an audience. The heavyweight champion has always exerted a fascination that transcends sport, but no previous holder of the title has been able to invade so many lives at so many levels. Compared with him, the most vivid of his predecessors are blurred figures dancing behind frosted glass. When he speaks, he assumes no less than that he is addressing mankind.

Mark Kram, in the March 8, 1971, Sports Illustrated preview of the bout, also took a crack at assessing its significance.

The thrust of this fight on the public consciousness is incalculable. It has been a ceaseless whir that seems to have grown in decibel with each new soliloquy by Ali, with each dead calm promise by Frazier. It has magnetized the imagination of ring theorists, and flushed out polemicists of every persuasion. It has cut deep into the thicket of our national attitudes, and it is a conversational imperative everywhere—from the gabble of big-city salons and factory lunch breaks rife with unreasoning labels, to ghetto saloons with their own false labels.

In the late Dick Schaap's excellent 1971 profile of Ali in the now-defunct Sport magazine that is reprinted in the book, "The Best American Sports Writing of the Century," he tells of a call he received from Ali.

Eight weeks before the night of the Frazier fight, the telephone rang in my bedroom late one night. I picked it up. "Hello," I said.

"The champion of the world," said the caller. "I'm back from the dead."

I hope so. The man-child should be the heavyweight champion of the world. It is the only role he was born to play.

The fight, of course, lived up to its billing. It was a fast-paced, high-action fight with great skill shown on both sides. The outcome hung in the balance as the bout went into the championship rounds.

Frazier floored Ali with a tremendous left hook that is remembered as perhaps the best ever thrown. Mercante wrote that he was "astonished" by how quickly Ali had gotten up.

In those days, two judges and the referee scored the fight. Arthur Aidala had it nine rounds to six for Frazier. Bill Recht saw it 11 rounds to four for Frazier, a total that shocked Mercante.

My scorecard read eight rounds for Frazier, six rounds to Ali and one even. The fight was close, sure, but there is no doubt that Frazier won even if Ali managed to convince legions of his supporters that he was the true victor that night, a claim he would later recant.

Mercante noted the brutal punishment the men took and said that he felt neither were ever the same. The referee, though, probably put the historic event in the best perspective in his book.

New York City has been called the city that never sleeps. It was never more so that night. Celebrations and talk of the fight echoed throughout Manhattan. Two spectators in the Garden had actually suffered fatal heart attacks from the excitement. On his way back from the fight, Jack Dempsey, seventy-six years old, knocked out two muggers outside his restaurant on Broadway. Clenching his big-knuckled right fist he told me later: "I can't go long, Arthur, but I can still punch a little."

But the closeness of the fight had more to do with the tremendous toll the match took on both fighters. Frazier had to be hospitalized, and although only 27 years old, his best days as a fighter were behind him. Though some of Ali's greatest victories still lay ahead, he would never again approach what he once had in his prime, as he did that night.

Boxing never had a bigger night, and, in all likelihood, probably never will.

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