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Fight of the Century: Remembering Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier I, 50 years later

·Combat columnist
·9 min read
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Joe Frazier, the heavyweight champion of the world, spent the morning of March 8, 1971, in a New York hotel, but it wasn’t the one he had checked into after making the short drive from his home in Philadelphia.

Frazier arrived in New York on March 6 and checked into the City Squire Motor Inn on 7th and 52nd in Manhattan, about 18 blocks from Madison Square Garden where on that Monday night five decades ago, he’d defend the heavyweight championship against Muhammad Ali.

New York police received threats on Frazier’s life, both via mail and by telephone. Frazier was hustled to another location, where four NYPD detectives were assigned to guard him. They were in addition to the four officers from the Philadelphia police who’d traveled with him.

The weather was cold and windy, a last kick from winter before the spring thaw. The high was 36 and winds gusted at up to 28 mph, and were sustained at 15.

Despite the unseasonably cold late winter day, police expected more than 40,000 fans to mill around outside of Madison Square Garden during the fight card, so 500 officers were brought in to provide security and keep order.

This was a fight, and as play-by-play announcer Don Dunphy said at one point during the broadcast of the bout, “The biggest crown in the world is at stake, the heavyweight championship.”

This, though, was more than just another boxing match. It was more, even, than another sporting event. Fifty years ago Monday, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier met, finally, in the ring to settle once and for all the identity of the world’s greatest heavyweight.

Both were already legendary professional champions after each having won gold medals in the Olympics, Ali in Rome in 1960 and Frazier in Tokyo in 1964. On March 8, 1971, Ali was 29 years old, 31-0 with 25 knockouts and the former champion only because he was stripped of his belt in 1967 for refusing induction into the Vietnam War.

Frazier, a sharecropper’s son from South Carolina, was 27 and had won the title that had been stripped from Ali. He was 26-0 with 23 knockouts and hit so hard with his left hook that some swore the walls of the building he was in shook when he connected.

'Bigger than the Super Bowl at the time'

Their fight was in reality a microcosm of the mood of the country at the time, a socioeconomic and political battle being played out over 15 three-minute rounds by two Black men who cared about little more that night than tearing the other man’s head off.

The liberals, and the growing number of those who were against the war, favored Ali. The conservatives, those who’d lost a loved one in the war, and those who believed one must serve his country when called upon no matter what, supported Frazier.

Tim Ryan, the longtime CBS Sports broadcaster, was 31 and working for WPIX in New York in 1971. He provided the only live English-language radio broadcast of the fight, for New Zealand Public Radio and the Armed Forces Network.

Ryan said the fight attracted an esoteric and colorful crowd that only the biggest events can draw.

“Oh, this was definitely bigger than the Super Bowl at the time,” Ryan, now 81, told Yahoo Sports. “In terms of the media attention and the excitement the fight created, this fight topped that. First, there was this expectation that it would never happen and then there was all of the controversy surrounding Ali. And at that point, it had only been a couple of years, not a long time, since he’d become Ali from Cassius Clay. A lot of people, including Joe, still referred to him as Clay at the time.

“The real driving force that created so much interest in this fight was the fact that Ali was seen by so many as a draft dodger. There was this whole racial undercurrent that surrounded the fight. Joe was this working class guy who would go in and hammer as hard as he could, but he had nowhere near the charisma that Ali had begun to display back when he was still Cassius Clay. So a lot of the interest in this fight wasn’t even about boxing. It was people who wanted to see someone beat up that damned draft dodger, or those who supported this guy who was one of the first to speak out against what would become a highly unpopular war and stood up for what he believed in and was willing to give up everything.”

New York, NY - 1971: (L-R) Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier boxing at Madison Square Garden, March 8, 1971. (Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)
Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier square off at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971, in New York. (Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)

The scene outside the Garden was the stuff of legends. There was the boxing crowd, of course, and the wise guys who had always been a part of the sweet science. But the arena was filled with movie stars and celebrities of all persuasions, as well as folks who just wanted to be seen.

Frank Sinatra was one of the biggest names in American pop culture, but he couldn’t get a ticket. He badly wanted to see the fight, and managed to get a media credential as a ringside photographer for Life magazine. Academy Award-winning actor Burt Lancaster was one of the three broadcasters, joining Dunphy and ex-light heavyweight champion Archie Moore on the call.

Ryan, who shared his thoughts about the fight in his engaging memoir, “On Someone Else’s Nickel,” was astonished by what he saw around the Garden on fight night.

“The scene was like something out of a movie,” Ryan said.

Gene Kilroy was part of that scene. He’d been Ali’s friend since meeting him at the Rome Olympics in 1960. Kilroy was an officer in the Army stationed in Germany, and was assigned to work the Olympics.

Ali was known as Cassius Clay during the Olympics, and he and Kilroy quickly hit it off. Kilroy loved how genuine and kind-hearted and occasionally even naive Clay was.

“I was with him [in Rome] and we were walking down the street and someone came up to him begging for money,” Kilroy said. “Ali didn’t have any money. I think he had eight bucks in his pocket and he gave this guy three. And I said to him, ‘You don’t have anything to take care of yourself, why are you giving your money away?’ He said, ‘Well, he needs it. And I know God is testing me and watching what I do.’”

Kilroy, who years later was dubbed “The Facilitator,” for his ability to get just about anything done for Ali, gradually began to help him more.

Ali was so well known at the time of the fight that the Garden and security built an apartment inside the arena so that after the weigh-in, Ali could stay there until the fight and not create a ruckus outside.

Kilroy, now 84 and the only living member of Ali’s famous entourage, said Ali loved being with people.

“All this stuff about Ali being the bad guy and people hating him, that’s all bulls***,” said Kilroy in his gruff baritone. “People loved Ali and he loved the people. He used to go to hospitals and visit kids. He knew if we put out a [press release], there would be huge crowds there, but he didn’t want that. He wanted to be with the kids, so he’d visit kids on the condition that nobody knew he was there. And I can’t tell you how many times he did that.”

Kilroy said there is little question that Ali’s three-year exile from boxing changed him dramatically as a fighter for the worse. But Ali didn’t sulk about the loss to Frazier, even though it was a brutal fight in which both men absorbed nearly inhumane amounts of punishment.

Ali: 'When I fight and lose, the whole world cries'

Frazier landed 59.9 percent of his punches in winning a unanimous decision in a fight scored on the round system. He won 8-6-1, 9-6 and 11-4. Ali was disappointed and was taken to a local hospital afterward to have his jaw X-rayed.

Kilroy contacted then-New York Giants’ coach Allie Sherman to find the best doctor to help Ali.

But Ali was philosophical about the defeat.

“I said to him once we all got in the back and sat down, ‘Champ, you’ll be OK. You did great,’” Kilroy said. “And he looked at me and he said, ‘Joe Frazier’s the champ. I’m not the champ any more.’ He wasn’t angry or bitter or anything. He understood every fight had a winner and a loser. He didn’t want to lose and he gave everything he had inside of him to try to win, but when he lost, he accepted it.

“I remember he said later, ‘You know, when other fighters fight and lose, little people cry. When I fight and lose, the whole world cries.’ That’s how it was, really. When he lost [to Frazier], Dr. J [Julius Erving] told me how devastated he was. So many of them were. [NFL Hall of Famer] Jimmy Brown loved him. It ate him up. But Ali accepted it.”

Ali would go on to defeat Frazier in their next two meetings, in 1974 in New York and in 1975 in Manila, Philippines. Ali called that fight the closest to death he ever felt.

He defeated George Foreman in 1974 to regain the title he’d won first by stopping Sonny Liston in 1964.

“It was 10 years from the time he won it the first time to when he won it the second time,” Kilroy said. “Think about that.”

Foreman, who followed Ali and Frazier by winning a gold medal in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and then becoming heavyweight champion, later became exceptionally close with Ali.

In 2013, Foreman told Yahoo Sports he was stunned when Ali lost.

“I loved Muhammad Ali so much,” Foreman said then. “I just looked up to him at that time and he was this guy I could never see losing. When he lost, I was like, ‘What? Muhammad Ali lost? That can’t be.’ He was that kind of a guy. I learned from him when he fought for the title [in Africa in 1974]. That fight, everybody talked about their fight and it meant everything to boxing.”

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