It had been more than 40 years since the fight — the fight — and the years had clearly taken their toll on the brave and courageous former champion. He’d just finished signing autographs to make a few extra bucks in the opulent lobby of a Las Vegas hotel where in a few days, much of the boxing world would convene to watch the latest incarnation of The Fight of the Century.
He saw a familiar face, and struggled to pull his body out of a folding chair to say hello. Asked about the fight that weekend, Joe Frazier declined to give an opinion. He gave a reporter a bear hug and a pat on the back.
He beamed and in a slow drawl, he said, “Man, we had the whole world watching us. The whole damn world!”
Frazier was only months from the end that day and had a weariness about him that was the antithesis of his younger self. In the ring, Frazier was a relentless buzzsaw, always pressing forward, in perpetual motion as he sized up his foe. He was an irresistible force who would impose his will upon some of the meanest, toughest and best boxers who ever lived.
He would do it again on March 8, 1971, in what is arguably the most significant sporting event in the history of this country. It was on that day at Madison Square Garden in New York 48 years ago that Frazier, an undefeated fighter with a legitimate claim to the heavyweight title, faced another man with a similar claim.
By 1971, Muhammad Ali was one of the most recognizable faces on Earth. He’d been stripped of his championship in 1967 for refusing induction into the military as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.
He lost his boxing license and was forced to sit out the final nine months of 1967, all of 1968 and 1969 and the first nine-plus months of 1970 before he returned to spectacularly take out Jerry Quarry in Atlanta on Oct. 26, 1970.
Ali stopped Quarry in the third round after three years and seven months out of the ring. He would come back 42 days later to stop Oscar Bonavena in the 15th round.
That led to the fight that literally stopped the sporting world.
Nothing was bigger. Frank Sinatra served as a ringside photographer while Burt Lancaster, who at that point had won the Academy Award for Best Actor three times, was on the broadcast team.
The crowd was filled with movie stars and musicians, athletes and politicians. Gene Kelly, Woody Allen and Ed Sullivan were there. So, too, was Sugar Ray Robinson, the greatest fighter who ever lived, as were ex-heavyweight champions Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
The fight would prove to be performance art at the highest level, the boxer versus the slugger, the fast, athletic and braggadocious challenger against the indefatigable champ whose punches were so hard and sharp it seemed as if he could make the walls of a building quake.
It was a magnificent ballad of violence, Ali continually circling and popping the blazing jab, dropping a right hand when Frazier managed to box him into a corner. Frazier chugged relentlessly forward, bobbing left, weaving right, his arms in front of his face to try to protect against Ali’s rapier-like jabs.
All the while, Frazier was willing to take one, or even two or three, if only he could get off that left hook. He believed in his left hook unequivocally, and in the 15th round, in perhaps the most famous punch in boxing history, he leaped and landed it on Ali’s chin.
The challenger went down with a minute left in the fight, and clearly was in trouble. It had been obvious to any neutral observer by that point that Frazier would win the fight, but this knockdown would punctuate it.
Frazier went on to win a unanimous decision, but the aftermath was almost a nightmare. Ali boasted that he put Frazier in the hospital, and that he was largely unmarked.
In the ensuing years, Ali’s popularity and legend grew, and he never let up the attack on his rival. Bob Arum, whose career in boxing began in 1966 when he promoted an Ali bout in Toronto against George Chuvalo, was close to both men.
He would probably have promoted the fight in Las Vegas, but Moe Dalitz, a mobster who ran a casino, didn’t like Ali and sent word that the fight should go elsewhere, and so it landed in New York.
Arum remained close to both men until their deaths, Frazier on Nov. 7, 2011, and Ali on June 3, 2016.
Arum sat ringside at Ali-Frazier I in $100 seats with future Houston mayor Fred Hofheinz, whose father, Judge Roy Hofheinz, was also once Houston’s mayor, as well as the creator of the Astrodome and one of the founders of the Houston Astros.
People desperate to see the fight offered Arum 10 to 20 times the face value to buy his tickets, an unheard of figure at the time.
Arum is rarely at a loss for words, but he struggled to describe the atmosphere as the fighters made the walk to the ring.
“It was incredible, just something I’ll never forget,” Arum said. “It was the most unbelievable thing I’ve seen, the electricity in that arena.”
Arum’s reputation was built by his work with Ali and later Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran, Floyd Mayweather and Oscar De La Hoya.
But he remained close to Frazier, and said he was pained by how difficult the Ali years were for him.
“Frazier was one of the greatest men you’d ever want to meet,” Arum said. “He was a tough son of a gun, but he had a nice, caring way about him. It was hard to see what he went through. Out of the ring, when it came to jousting verbally with Ali, he never had a chance and it hurt him tremendously.”
Frazier was mystified by Ali’s treatment. While Ali was in exile, Frazier attempted to help him regain his license. He gave Ali money to help support him. He called politicians and even pretended they were about to fight in a park to help Ali keep his name in the news.
He saw Ali’s attacks as personal, cutting and cruel.
“Ali would do anything to get a rise out of him and he was a master at it,” Arum said. “Ali was just selling the show, but to Joe, it was very personal.”
Nearly a half-century later, the fight remains as iconic as ever. Search the internet for the date “March 8, 1971” and the only results that appear are about the fight.
Hundreds of books and songs and dozens of movies and documentaries have been produced about the fight. Tens of millions of words have been written about it.
In 2011, only months before his death, Frazier finally seemed content with everything that had gone down.
“Whenever people talk about boxing, however long that is, they’re going to talk about that fight,” Frazier said. “They ain’t never gonna forget us.”
They haven’t so far and probably never will.
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