The night of the fight, taking place at Madison Square Garden in New York City, was electric - like no other night in boxing history.
50 years ago?
I can’t say I remember it like it was yesterday. It’s like a distant planet, thousands of miles away, but vivid and bright.
I was 12 when “The Fight of the Century” went down.
That term, “Fight of the Century” had been used to describe many ring battles in the past, most famous being the July 4, 1910, bout between Jack Johnson and former champion James J. Jeffries.
Most boxing fans loathed Johnson and loved Jeffries. “The Boilermaker” was coming out of retirement to, as author Jack London wrote, “Knock that golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face.”
Didn’t come close to happening. The fight was pretty one-sided with Johnson winning by stoppage in round 15. Johnson had faced racism, and Jeffries, to score a resounding knockout.
Fast forward fifty-six years. Muhammad Ali, who said he could relate to Johnson, was considered a traitor by many for refusing induction into the U.S. Army. Joe Frazier, undefeated like Ali, was considered the more establishment fighter. The buildup had been intense. Everyone had an opinion. The world was about to stop.
The night of the fight, taking place at Madison Square Garden in New York City, was electric - like no other night in boxing history. Ringside was filled with celebrities. Frank Sinatra was snapping pictures for Life magazine. Actor Burt Lancaster was playing himself, and doing commentary (not very well actually) for the bout.
The fight itself did something that rarely happens. It exceeded the hype. Fifteen rounds of excitement and forced attrition. Ali got off fast, aware that Frazier was a slow starter. He tattooed the champion’s face with jabs, causing swelling. Frazier took it all and kept “smokin”- even smiling at Ali.
By the middle rounds, Frazier’s left hook was finding Ali. The shots were brutal, knocking Ali’s head back. He also worked over Ali’s belly, bringing his guard down.
Ali rallied back, clobbering Frazier with a short left, the same blow that had deposited Oscar Bonavena on all fours a few months before. Frazier, though, was no Bonavena.
He absorbed the shot and kept coming. Frazier hurt Ali badly in round 11, his left hook sending the former champion wobbling around the ring. Ali fought back in round 13, and, at times, in round 14, but Frazier finished the fight strong, sending Ali sprawling to the canvas with, what else, a left hook.
“The Fight of the Century” was dramatic, competitive, and brutal.
Frazier, who was never the same fighter after the bout, had to dig deep to the center of his being to find a way to win.
Ali, with a misshapen jaw from Frazier’s left hook, showed guts that many thought he lacked.
That night in the Big Apple, two undefeated heavyweights clashed.
Though one came out of it the official winner, they both won, as did boxing.
The legends would fight two more fights, but what went down March 8, 1971 truly was “The Fight of the Century.”