Getting ready for the "Fight of the Century"

Michael Arkush
Yahoo! Sports

(Note: The following is an excerpt from the new book, "Fight of the Century," by Yahoo! Sports' Michael Arkush, published by John Wiley & Sons, which retells the story of the March 8, 1971, fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. This was not simply a battle between two undefeated champions; it juxtaposed two competing views of a nation still reeling from the turbulent 1960s).

Ali began training in mid-January at the Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach. He weighed nearly 230 pounds, about 15 more than he planned to be against Frazier. In his first spirited workout, Ali sparred six rounds with three different partners. He played to the audience, as always, but recognized that he was in for some rigorous days.

"Ain't my lungs," he said (Sports Illustrated, Feb. 1, 1971). "They are all right. It's my muscles. They get tired. Ain't like when I was a young man. Now I'm older, gonna be 29." Even so, he was the same Ali outside the ropes. "He [Frazier] can throw all the punches he wants, he's not in there with an amateur. He's in there with the best professional and fastest in the history of the whole world," Ali declared. "No, I'm not putting Joe Frazier down. I'm just telling the truth. [Sonny] Liston was the greatest thing ever until I beat him. Then they called him a bum." When a local television reporter arrived for an interview, he was greeted by the esteemed poet, T.S. Ali: "Frazier will catch hell. From the start of the bell. Then we'll jump out. And take out Howard Cosell. (Dayton Daily News, Jan. 15, 1971)"


Muhammad Ali struggles to get off the Madison Square Garden canvas after being floored by Joe Frazier in the 15th round of their March 8,1971 fight. Frazier won via unanimous decision. (AP file photos)


Muhammad Ali struggles to get off the Madison Square Garden canvas after being floored by Joe Frazier in the 15th round of their March 8,1971 fight. Frazier won via unanimous decision. (AP file photos)


Muhammad Ali struggles to get off the Madison Square Garden canvas after being floored by Joe Frazier in the 15th round of their March 8,1971 fight. Frazier won via unanimous decision. (AP file photos)

Inside the ropes, the poet once again let himself be a punching bag. He felt that absorbing punishment from his sparring partners prepared his body for the shots Frazier would administer, and nobody in his corner was about to convince him otherwise. Dundee, at least, persuaded Ali to shelve his idea of setting up headquarters near the new home he purchased in Cherry Hill, N.J.

During training, Ali stayed at Octagon Towers, an upscale Jewish retirement home near the beach. "The Jews, at first, were scared s------- of Ali's group," said Ferdie Pacheco, then Ali's physician. "They didn't realize they were boxers, not gangsters." As usual, it did not take Ali very long to ingratiate himself with the new crowd. When his stay ended, the residents gave him a farewell party with a cake that showed a victorious Ali in the ring standing over his hapless victim.

Miami Beach was a long way from New York, and its constant distractions. Of course, in those days, in the life of Muhammad Ali, Pluto would not have been far enough away from the spotlight.

"There is one word," Pacheco said, "that fit the whole time preparing for Frazier – frenzy. It was a boxing frenzy. It was a publicity frenzy. It was everything going too fast at the same time, everybody showing up at one time. Everybody was kissing his ass and he was eating it up. Training was mostly a publicity stunt. He trained a little bit and then he talked a lot." At the same time, he admitted, "I don't see how he could have done it any other way. He was rejoicing at being the No. 1 guy in the country, in the world! It wasn't good but that's the way it was."

The basic strategy mapped out by Dundee was for his man to dance in the early rounds while flicking his familiar left jabs to keep Frazier at bay. After about six or seven rounds, Ali then would come off his toes to become the aggressor. "I can't wait to see how Frazier will react to backing up," Dundee said (New York Daily News, Feb. 26, 1971). "The whole key to the fight is my guy's jab. When he starts to land it, everything else falls in place."

With Ali, working on his body was always only one part of his preparation. He soon went to work on another part, the psyche, Joe Frazier's psyche. Ali began to portray Frazier as an Uncle Tom, a pawn of the white establishment, while he was the one who could truly identify with the suffering of black people in the United States and all over the globe. Ali claimed that he was fighting for a cause while Frazier was fighting for a check, and that he was too ugly and dumb to be the heavyweight champion. "I know what's going to happen the night before the fight," Ali said (New York Post, Jan. 15, 1971.). "That Joe Frazier, he's gonna get telephone calls from folks in Georgia and Alabama and Mississippi saying, 'Joe Frazier, you be a white man tonight and stop that draft-dodging n-----.' "

Ali delivered the line with a laugh and rolled his eyes, but, by attacking Frazier's legitimacy as an advocate for his own race, he demeaned his opponent, and he did it over and over again, like a candidate who found his stump speech. Some have argued Ali was merely attempting to promote the fight, as usual, and disrupt Frazier's concentration.

"I never took it seriously," HBO's Larry Merchant said, "and I don't think Ali really thought Frazier was an Uncle Tom. I just think he thought it would provoke him though I could see how Frazier, being the target, thought differently." Even so, this was one fight that did not need Ali to promote it. The fight easily sold out. Besides, he and Frazier were guaranteed $2.5 million apiece no matter how many spectators showed up at Madison Square Garden or watched on closed-circuit TV.

The attacks were also inaccurate. Unlike Ali, Frazier did not publicly empathize with the plight of fellow blacks. He did not mingle with the well-known black activists of his day, such as Whitney Young, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, and Julian Bond, or the well-known black entertainers, such as Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby, and Diana Ross. Frazier was friendly with Philadelphia police commissioner Frank Rizzo, an enemy to many African-Americans. But Frazier, even more than Ali, suffered from racism in his youth. When he was 14, a white boy called him the n-word. Frazier beat him up. His mother told him that if he couldn't get along with white folks, he would need to leave home, which he did a few years later, heading first to New York, and then to Philadelphia.

Pacheco urged Ali to let the issue go. "You do not need to do this," Pacheco told him. "He's a black man like you are." Ali understood, but told Pacheco: "I like to get under his skin." Writer Dave Kindred believes that Ali's fears prompted the Uncle Tom references. "I think Frazier scared Ali more than anybody ever," Kindred said, "and that was why he was so mean, so contemptible in the things he said about him. Ali's moments of panic came out as mean-spirited stuff always when he was most afraid." Veteran columnists such as Dick Young and Jimmy Cannon, always wary of Ali, criticized his treatment of Frazier while the younger members of the pack gave him a pass. "He was such good entertainment and gave them such good quotes," explained Thomas Hauser.

Joe Frazier did not give Ali a pass, then or ever. He rightly pointed out the hypocrisy of being labeled an Uncle Tom by a black man whose trainer was white. In his autobiography, Frazier called it a "cynical attempt by Clay to make me feel isolated from my own people. He thought that would weaken me when it came time to face him in that ring. Well, he was wrong. It didn't weaken me, it awakened me to what a cheap-shot son of a bitch he was." While Ali might have been fighting for a "cause" so was Frazier. His cause was to provide for his wife and children, which was every bit as noble as any principles Muhammad Ali ever espoused. To be sure, Frazier made the situation worse for himself by always referring to Ali as Clay. "Only those who were bigots, rednecks, hardliners, continued to call him Clay, almost as an insult," former Today Show host Bryant Gumbel, explained in the 2000 HBO documentary A Nation Divisible. "And when Frazier chose to do that, to a lot of African-Americans, it was kind of like, 'Hey, who you siding with here? Take a look in the mirror.' "

Frazier set up camp on January 21 at the Concord, a resort in the Catskill Mountains about 90 miles north of New York City, where he trained for seven previous fights. The cold weather suited him perfectly. He was not in camp to entertain the public and the press with his comedic talents and social theories. He was in camp for one reason, to prepare his body and mind for the most important night of his career. His sparring partners, who included Don Warner, light heavyweight Ray Anderson, Billy "Moleman" Williams, and a very talented heavyweight from San Diego named Ken Norton, paid the price for Frazier's dedication. Generally, before Frazier fights, "guys would come in camp and the first week there, they would beat Joe up so bad, I'd feel sorry for him," said Lester Pelemon, who assisted with the workouts. "By the second week, Joe would come around and we would have to send for more sparring partners."

After warming up with music blaring in the background, he went after them with every weapon he possessed. From the day in the early 1960s he walked into the Police Athletic Gym, his last chance to be the next Joe Louis, he knew of no other way to prepare. One afternoon, while giving Warner a ride home, Cloverlay's Joe Hand casually asked if he were coming back to the gym the next day. "I can't come tomorrow," said Warner, a towel with a bag of ice wrapped around his mouth. "I need a while for my gums to be straightened out." When Warner put the towel down, Hand got a closer look at the damage. "His teeth were so loose," Hand said. "They were like a little kid's teeth ready to fall out. Frazier would just beat the hell out of him."

Norton, who two years later would upset Ali and break his jaw, was no ordinary sparring partner. There were moments when Norton held his own with the heavyweight champion, but there were also moments when he did not. "He kind of got smart with Frazier in one sparring session," recalled Ed Casey, a former heavyweight from New Bedford, Mass., who hung around the champion's camp for a few days. "Frazier hit him with a left hook just to show him that he was the boss. They blew the whistle to end the round. He hurt him." Outside the ropes, however, Frazier was a different man. Stan Hochman, the Philadelphia Daily News columnist, said Frazier allowed his sparring partners to beat him when they shot craps at night. "The way he would lose was by taking even odds at making a ten or a four when he would have been getting 9-5 or 2-1 or whatever the odds were," Hochman remembered. "I used to think, 'What is this man doing?' It was his way of giving the partners money to soften the damage he had done to them in sparring and Yank went along with it."

As devoted to his craft as Frazier was, the loneliness of training camp got to him on occasion, just as it gets to everyone. Early in his career, he killed a lot of the boredom by phoning his friends and family. "Joe used to run up these tremendous phone bills," Hand said, "hundreds and hundreds of dollars. I was the guardian of the money, and I would say to him, 'You got this freakin' phone bill.' He said to me, 'Would you rather have me on the street seeing my friends or would you rather me talk to them?' " Hand did not bring it up again. Frazier later spent much of his spare time strumming his guitar. No matter how he distracted himself, the longer Frazier was in camp, the more irritable he generally became, Hand said. "I went to see him in Atlantic City before one fight and he was being really arrogant," Hand said. "I said, 'I'm gone.' He said, 'Now, you wait a minute. I want to ask you, when was the last time that you got laid? I've been in training camp for a month.' He was so grumpy. There were never any women around the camp."

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