March 8, 1971: Ali vs Frazier I

Back in 2015, immediately following the announcement of a Floyd Mayweather vs Manny Pacquiao match finally being signed and sealed, excited boxing pundits began searching for comparisons. How did this long-awaited “superfight” stack up with all the huge mega-battles of the past? It didn’t take long for an intriguing talking point to be established: Mayweather vs Pacquiao would be the biggest prizefight, in terms of global interest and anticipation, since Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier battled for the undisputed world heavyweight title in Madison Square Garden over four decades ago.

At the time this was a provocative statement; looking back, it is now a pathetic one. While, yes, #MayPac was a genuine phenomenon and, in terms of public interest, one of the biggest matches in boxing history, the contest itself should never be mentioned in the same breath as that of Ali vs Frazier I, a superfight that not only promised action, drama and excitement, but delivered and, in fact, exceeded all expectations.

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Ali taunts Joe.

The Ali vs Frazier rivalry is nothing short of legendary and it certainly deserves such status. Here were two gifted heavyweights, champions in any era of boxing history, whose personalities and fighting styles could not have been more different. Their relationship outside the ring was as complex as it was acrimonious, but for their genuine enmity to take on larger dimensions, they had to back up the off-stage intrigue with truly epic fistic struggles. And, unlike Floyd and Manny, in 1971, with the eyes of the whole world watching, that is exactly what they did.

But in truth, even without the fifteen rounds of fireworks which Ali and Frazier provided, their first historic encounter entailed much greater impact and gravity than #MayPac ever could. So compelling was this match between undefeated champions, a unique clash with both political and racial overtones, that it became boxing’s first truly global event. Fifty countries purchased rights to the closed-circuit telecast and the battle was broadcast to the world in twelve different languages, evidence of unprecedented world-wide excitement and anticipation. It would prove to be the most watched sporting event in world history up to that point. But how could anyone expect the match itself to do justice to such a build-up? And yet it did.

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Joe Frazier: 1944-2011

Today is the anniversary of that celebrated contest and it’s as good a time as any to recall it’s significance. It’s also a good time to draw attention to the single most overlooked fact emanating from it: Joe Frazier’s victory that night stands as one of the greatest in all of boxing history.

There are reasons why Frazier’s singular performance has never received the acclamation it truly deserves, the most obvious one being that, justly or unjustly, Ali was the hero in the rivalry, the noble and charismatic one who had suffered for his religious and political convictions. Stripped of his title and boxing license after his refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War, Ali ever after wore a mantle of nobility and larger-than-boxing significance. As well, in 1971 Frazier was slightly favored by boxing experts to win. They suspected Ali had yet to fully regain his form after his long lay-off, noting that in his two comeback fights against contenders Quarry and Bonavena, he had not looked particularly sharp.

None of this should undermine the greatness of what Frazier achieved on March 8, 1971. But it did, in part because in 1971 few people yet recognized Ali’s greatness. “The Louisville Lip’s” image remained for many that of a dancing master who had won his title under dubious circumstances and who lacked the power to render unconscious outclassed foes such as Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell. In fact, Ali was a big heavyweight for his time and when he planted himself he fired truly heavy artillery. Against Joe he enjoyed advantages of four and nine inches in height and reach and ten pounds of weight. There was also no question as to which was the faster and more mobile fighter.

Then there was the popularity contest. In an attempt to intimidate and out-psyche his opponent, Ali went to great lengths to denigrate Frazier and isolate him from the black community, branding him an “Uncle Tom” and “the white man’s champion.” Lamentably, Ali’s chatter proved convincing for many and he became the sentimental favorite. For Frazier, who had gone out of his way to help Ali during Muhammad’s exile from the ring, the insults cut deep.

Frazier tested Ali’s chin again and again that night.

“He had me stunned,” Frazier told writer William Nack in 1996 for a Sports Illustrated article that detailed how, more than 25 years after the fact, Smokin’ Joe’s anger was still fresh, still smokin’. “This guy was a buddy. I remember looking at him and thinkin’, ‘What’s wrong with this guy? Has he gone crazy?’ He called me an ‘Uncle Tom.’ … I grew up like the black man; he didn’t. I cooked the liquor. I cut the wood. I worked the farm. I lived in the ghetto. Yes, I ‘tommed.’ When he wanted me to help him get a license, I ‘tommed’ for him. For him! He betrayed my friendship … I sat down and I said to myself, I’m gonna kill him. Okay? Simple as that. I’m gonna kill him.”

Such was Frazier’s anger that Joe’s manager, Yank Durham, insisted on separate weigh-ins on the day of the match so as to keep his fighter as calm as possible. Ali loved to taunt and trash talk his opponents, in part because he enjoyed the attention and the laughs from the media and spectators, but there was also a competitive element to his verbal attacks. His belief was that by needling and insulting his adversary he could rattle and distract him and throw him off his game. But against Frazier, Ali’s taunts back-fired completely. Joe was never intimidated, only enraged. And that rage fueled an unstoppable drive to win and an astonishing display of will power and physical endurance.

While the early rounds of the match belonged to Ali, their pace and intensity were determined by Frazier. He imposed tremendous pressure, cutting off the ring and making Ali miss repeatedly as he bore in and targeted the belly of “The Louisville Lip” with his power shots. Ali in turn did not dance but willingly exchanged as he sought to take advantage of Joe customarily being a slow-starter, his pre-fight prediction of a knockout in six reflecting his intention to overwhelm his foe with an onslaught of sharp combinations.

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Ali down in round fifteen.

But Frazier, following the tactical guidance of his genius trainer, Eddie Futch, kept bobbing low to force Ali to throw uppercuts, which in turn created openings for Joe’s deadliest weapon, his devastating left hook. At the same time Frazier was steadfast in regards to pounding the mid-section, which further encouraged Ali to lower his guard. But while Joe slipped many of Ali’s punches with constant upper body movement, he nonetheless absorbed tremendous punishment, even in rounds he clearly won. His smaller stature and shorter reach forced him to absorb two or three punches for every blow that he landed and indeed, few men have ever paid as high a price for victory as Joe did that night.

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Ali’s prediction failed, and in fact round six was Joe’s best of the bout up to that point as it signaled Frazier’s taking charge of the contest. Constantly moving forward and forcing “Clay” to work, Frazier landed heavy shots to both body and head. A tiring Ali, surprised by the relentless pace and Joe’s constant pressure, took terrible punishment in the middle rounds as Frazier, unyielding and driven, imposed his will, forcing his quarry to the ropes again and again. Ali came back in the ninth and tenth behind a sharp jab, but in the eleventh Frazier staggered Ali with a vicious left hook, almost dropped him, and dominated the rest of the round. By virtue of sheer will and aggressiveness Frazier took the next two rounds while Ali rebounded in round fourteen, but then Joe firmly decided matters with a dramatic, final round knockdown, flooring the iron-chinned Ali with a perfect left hook.

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“I kicked your ass!”

At the final bell, Frazier, his face a misshapen mass of welts shouted at Ali, “I kicked your ass!” and “The Greatest” had no reply. He had thought himself distinctly superior to Frazier in every way but Joe had proven him wrong in one of the single greatest victories in the history of the sport, maybe the greatest in the history of the heavyweights. Consider if you will the fact no one ever defeated as strong a version of Muhammad Ali, a fighter now recognized by many as the greatest heavyweight of all time, and few have withstood as much punishment as Joe did that night to emerge victorious. It took everything Joe had — physically, mentally and spiritually — to win that fight; he was never the same ever after. The fierceness and the strain of that first battle with Ali ended Joe’s prime.

Joe getting ready to celebrate after 15 rounds of war.
Joe getting ready to celebrate after 15 rounds of war.

By all accounts, Joe Frazier became a bitter man in his later years. He resented the greater adulation and financial success of his rival, and perhaps he also resented the fact that so much was made of Ali’s victories while his own were never accorded the significance they deserved. His career had become defined more by his defeats to George Foreman and Ali than his triumphs over a long list of formidable battlers from his era, the most competitive in the division’s history. How ironic then that it is Joe who forever owns the greatest victory of them all.

Well, if the general public does not accord Frazier his full due, let boxing fans never forget: while there is no denying Ali’s greatness, when he and “Smokin’ Joe” were still in their athletic primes, they went to war for fifteen blistering rounds. And Joe Frazier was the better man.                  — Michael Carbert

23 thoughts on “March 8, 1971: Ali vs Frazier I

  • June 5, 2015 at 1:40 am
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    Great read mate. I agree entirely, poor old Joe never got the praise he should for that remarkable fight.
    In winning that fight he sacrificed an entire career thereafter, it took that much out of him, but he was not to be denied!

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    • June 6, 2015 at 1:16 am
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      Thanks for reading, Matt.

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    • April 21, 2019 at 5:46 pm
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      Before the fight Ali bragged that if Frazier won he would crawl across the ring on his hands and knees and tell Frazier he was the greatest but he sneaked out without a word like the punk he was. He was far from the Greatest, just a big mouth phony. Many boxers had a much better record than Ali.

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      • June 7, 2020 at 6:20 pm
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        It’s not about the record, Eric, it’s about the fighter. Ali was the greatest heavyweight of all-time. Stop hating.

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        • July 24, 2020 at 9:59 pm
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          He was never the greatest heavyweight champion of all time. He proclaimed himself to be, but he was not. He was a very proud and arrogant man and a poor example of how a champion should act.

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          • September 18, 2021 at 10:07 am
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            Ali is not a big mouth phony and yes he may have been arrogant. A boxer has to have some level of showmanship and you really can say whatever you like about the man. Frazier gave Ali a 3-time fight scene where both really tried multiple tactics, although more so Ali than Frazier. I want someone to tell me about a man as large as Ali that can move that quick. A man as large as he that could hit many boxers at will with multiple flurries a round with pinpoint accuracy. In many of the rounds with Frazier, Ali pounded Frazier with all kinds of hits but also absorbed a good amount of punishment. When did Mayweather ever have that kind of competition? When did he ever get hit to the point where he was in danger of losing? There is so much to sport than just statistics. If you go by individual stats, it looks like LeBron is better than Jordan but it’s really not that simple. Again, it’s a different era for one, and second numbers are not qualitative. That means you don’t introduce your own narrative because you don’t like how someone is arrogant and loud mouth. That’s why you start going to different weight classes, which is why both Pacman and Mayweather have an advantage over Ali. But Ali is a lot more like Pacman because Pacman too never backed down and even challenged anyone anytime. So, I suggest you learn how to analyze a sport before you even attempt to label someone as an amateur or less than a champion.

  • December 24, 2016 at 11:03 am
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    I love this article and completely agree. On that night Joe Frazier gave the most determined effort I have ever seen in boxing history.

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  • September 15, 2017 at 12:11 pm
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    This was indeed one of the “Greatest” if not the greatest fight of all-time. Looking forward to March 8, 2021 the 50th Anniversary of “The Fight” there needs to be a statue placed outside of MSG (Madison Square Garden) to honor both boxing greats and the iconic event. This would be a symbol that can be enjoyed and marveled for generations to come knowing that on that day this sporting event changed boxing and had a impact on the world.

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    • April 6, 2020 at 3:43 pm
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      That’s a wonderful idea. I’ve never been to Manhattan, but I would visit just to see such a historic thing at Madison Square Garden!

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  • March 8, 2018 at 3:31 pm
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    In reply to Derrick, there is a terrific tableau at MSG in honour of the fight. I spent 15 minutes at it on a visit. It’s free to look at, as it is in the foyer (which is huge). I wonder if anyone knows where to get a copy of the film that was made about the event & the fight. I think it was called “The Fighters” though time has dimmed my memory on this!

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  • November 12, 2018 at 11:22 am
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    A great literary tribute to a pair of titans who forged one of the greatest contests in sporting history. No other matchup of succeeding boxing eras can qualify for the level of greatness displayed that fateful night. Truly Frazier’s finest hour, and a watershed moment in pugilism.

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  • January 7, 2019 at 3:39 pm
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    Joe Frazier’s finest hour. A proud and honest champion.

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  • January 13, 2019 at 12:48 pm
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    Thank you for writing this tribute. Of all the great fighters, Joe Frazier is the closest to my heart. May he rest in peace.

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  • March 9, 2019 at 5:16 am
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    Manny and Floyd the biggest awaited match up since Ali-Frazier 1???

    I seem to remember a fight in Montreal on June 20 1980 that was just as ( if not more) anticipated as the Ali-Frazier fight.

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  • March 15, 2019 at 6:56 am
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    Smokin Joe is my alltime favorite Heavyweight. I never liked Clay/Ali. He let his mouth outride his a-s in this fight.

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    • April 21, 2019 at 5:50 pm
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      I agree 100% …I never thought Ali waz all that good either

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  • July 28, 2019 at 3:19 pm
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    I think Joe Frazier’s pre-fight confidence intimidated Ali. Ali was probably psyched by Joe’s hunger and desire to fight and beat him. Ali’s brutal verbal assault on Joe stemmed from a bit of fear of Joe Frazier.

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  • April 18, 2020 at 8:43 pm
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    Frazier’s relentlessness was reminiscent of, yes, Marciano.

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  • April 30, 2020 at 4:28 am
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    I’m a huge Ali fan, but Frazier took the day. Ali was at his best that night, but Frazier would not be denied. Kind of like Hagler after withstanding Hearn’s first round onslaught. But what made the fight so amazing, was that both fighters were great that night. My respect for what Frazier did (and took) but also for what Ali absorbed. It was the epitome of a great competition. The will both men showed was remarkable.

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    • November 29, 2020 at 12:11 pm
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      Frazier’s effort was the most determined I have seen in the history of sports. Ali was great but the Frazier of that night in 1971 would have beaten Ali all three times.

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  • June 27, 2021 at 4:55 pm
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    In that “I kicked your ass” pic, Ali has a look of disbelief on his face!

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  • June 27, 2021 at 5:25 pm
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    I remember a conversation between my dad and grandfather when I was a kid. It was probably. Right before Ali was stripped of his title. My grandfather from Kentuckh, we lives in Pa. They were discussing a fight between the 2 and my grandfather said “Clay reminds me of a cat the way he pumches”. Joe Frazier made an opponent fight every second of every round, and that’s what I always admired about him. He was like a super hero to me at the time. I had that guys pictures on my wall as a kid. All my friends were Ali fans. The anti war protests were going strong at the time, and I believe that had as much to do with it or more than his boxing ability. Ali was a politician and a popular one at that in the boxing world. The people who made money from fights knew who was going to keep the money rolling in. The judges knew as well and Ali got the benefit of the doubt when it came to close fights. Ken Norton, in my opinion won the 3rd meeting, and to me a guy who lays on the ropes for 2 and a half minutes absorbing punches and flurries for the final 30 seconds does not deserve to win a round. He told the boxing world “I am the greatest” so many times, and was so popular, people believed him. His personality and his model features made him the appealing of all heavyweight boxers, and maybe of all weight classes. Perhaps someone should have reminded the officials it was not a popularity contest. In Ali vs Frazier 2 Ali clinched 133 times. That’s approximately 12 clinches per round. I remember frazier saying “it’s a good thing I didn’t have my wallet on me that night because I was mugged so many times! As a fan I personally enjoy watching a fight like Frazier vs Quarry 1 nose to nose, than a guy dancing around the ring or lying on the ropes or holding every 10 seconds!

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  • March 8, 2022 at 11:19 am
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    Frazier won the first fight, was at his absolute best. Ali came back from a 3 1/2 year layoff stopped Quarry and Bonevana. In the two comeback fights Ali was clearly not the same fighter as he was in ’67 against Foley. He took on Frazier with a possible prison sentence hanging over him. As Bert Sugar said, the Winner of the fight became the loser and the loser became the Winner. Frazier’s most notable opponents after Ali was George Foreman and Joe Bugner, Ali faced Norton, Foreman, Bugner, Lyle and Shavers. Frazier beat Ali in ’71 but had Ali not been stripped it would have been a different fight with a different result. RIP Ali and Joe, two of the Greatest

    Reply

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