Their first historic confrontation in 1971 took a significant toll on both Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. Months of build-up and intense media pressure were topped off by a fierce, dramatic, 15 round war which saw Frazier, in one of the great performances in boxing history, earn a unanimous decision victory. After this titanic struggle, Joe would never be the same. Following the bout he was admitted to hospital and treated for a number of ailments, including hypertension.
Ali didn’t pay as steep a price physically, though he too visited a hospital to treat an injured jaw, but in absorbing his first career defeat his public image sustained some serious damage. No longer was Ali the uncrowned king who had been unjustly robbed of his crown after refusing to serve in the military. Instead he had lost it after being knocked down and beaten fair-and-square by an equally exceptional talent. He was now, truly, a former champion.
And by the time of Ali vs Frazier II, so was Joe. After a couple of wins against overmatched opposition in 1972, Frazier took on a young contender named George Foreman, the 1968 Olympic gold medalist, undefeated with 34 knockouts in 37 wins. After vanquishing Ali, Frazier was viewed as a truly dominant champion and there was little reason to think Foreman might take the crown. So fight fans got the shock of their lives when Big George not only defeated Frazier in Kingston, Jamaica, but gave him a terrible beating, knocking him down six times in less than six minutes as Howard Cosell repeatedly bellowed from ringside, “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!”
During this same interval, Ali had kept a busy schedule — 10 bouts over 18 months — and then suffered his own setback just two months after Frazier lost to Foreman, dropping a 12 round decision to a young, unheralded contender named Ken Norton. Worse, Ali suffered a broken jaw during the fight and was out of action for months while it healed, though both Ali and Frazier got back in the win column before the year was out. “Smokin’ Joe” took a clear-cut points verdict over rugged Joe Bugner in July, and Ali squeaked by with a revenge split-decision win over Norton two months later. The stage was set for a 12 round rematch between Frazier and Ali, the winner to get a shot at Foreman.
Long before this many had wondered why Ali vs Frazier II had not happened already. After the extraordinary success of their first encounter, it seemed a safe bet it wouldn’t be long before a rematch. But the months passed and the champion showed no interest in a return. The reason was simple: Frazier hated “Clay,” as he liked to call him. During Ali’s forced exile Frazier had worked to help his rival regain his boxing license and had reportedly even loaned him money. But once the contracts were signed for the ’71 bout, Ali, seeking to establish a psychological edge, had mocked and taunted Frazier, calling him “ugly” and “ignorant” and unfairly labeling him an “Uncle Tom.” To Frazier, this was betrayal. And it hurt. Such was Joe’s fury that just before their first fight he prayed in his dressing room for the power to literally kill his hated adversary.
Thus, when anyone tried to seriously discuss a return bout with Ali they didn’t get very far with Joe. He had resented having to split the purse money evenly with his more popular rival for the first fight and so Frazier’s response regarding a rematch was simple and to the point: show me the cash. Before the Foreman bout there had been discussions between the fighters’ camps about evenly splitting a six million dollar pot, just as the fighters had split five million in ’71. “No way,” said Frazier. “I’m the champ. I won. I’ll go to hell before I give him half again.” So instead he got pummeled by Foreman for less than one million.
Madison Square Garden in New York sold out again for Ali vs Frazier II but the atmosphere was nothing like ’71. How could it have been? Their first fight was history, a contest between two undefeated heavyweight champions, viewed by an estimated 300 million around the globe. Now Ali and Frazier were no longer bigger than life, but instead ex-champions, older and slower. Yet the tension between the two men was, if anything, even greater. None of Frazier’s resentment had abated, something clear to all when Joe tried to wring Ali’s neck during a live television interview with Howard Cosell. So by fight night, while it wasn’t ’71, anticipation still ran high.
Unfortunately for Frazier, Ali had learned his lessons well from the first bout. He refused to make the same mistakes, such as clowning and playing to the crowd while Joe piled up points, or settling on the ropes and letting Frazier pound his abdomen. He also refused to engage in as many spirited, toe-to-toe exchanges; the second it looked like a firefight might break out, Ali clinched. Concentrating on lateral movement and using the entire ring, Ali circled and danced, landing quick jabs and one-twos, and hugging Joe anytime he threatened. It didn’t make for thrilling action, but it did allow Ali to establish a commanding lead on the scorecards as he swept the first four rounds.
Ali was also helped by the fact that Frazier appeared a pale imitation of his formerly smokin’ self. Compared to the first fight, Joe moved with less urgency and his punches lacked snap. He pursued doggedly, occasionally getting home with his big left, but for the most part Ali stayed one step ahead of his former conqueror on legs more nimble than in ’71. And when Joe did threaten, Ali would tie him up and hang on until the referee separated them. In the fifth the pace slowed and Frazier started to close the distance but Ali kept clinching while moving just enough to stay out of trouble. The sixth was controlled by Ali and a frustrated Frazier taunted “The Louisville Lip” before paying for his trouble by eating a sharp one-two.
It was not until the seventh that Frazier found his fire, timing Ali better and landing his howitzer, the left hook, repeatedly. He took the eighth as well but despite becoming more competitive, he could not seize control of the fight as he had in ’71. Ali’s clinching tactics blunted Joe’s attack and in the ninth Ali came back to life, beating Frazier to the punch again and again and stunning him with an uppercut at the end of the round.
Now it was obvious that Frazier needed a knockout to win. Joe landed more left hooks in the tenth, but unlike in their first clash, none seriously hurt or staggered Ali. Both men connected in the eleventh, the best action round of the match, and in the final stanza Ali closed the show, throwing one flurry after another and giving the crowd the Ali Shuffle as he swatted at Frazier. Yet it was Ali’s clinches, not his punches, which allowed him to control much of the action and fittingly, as the final bell sounded, it found the two heavyweights tangled up in each other’s arms.
The contest had lacked the action, the drama, and the ebb and flow of their first classic fight and this time there was no suspense in terms of the outcome; Ali won at least seven rounds. Frazier and his trainer Eddie Futch would complain about the referee’s unwillingness to penalize Ali for his constant holding, but Joe had simply not been busy enough to engender much sympathy. It had been a good fight yet a somewhat anti-climactic affair, and now attention shifted to the prospect of the crafty Ali challenging the awesome power of the indomitable Foreman.
— Michael Carbert