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.
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 15 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.
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 quicker 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.
“He had me stunned,” Frazier told writer William Nack in 1996 for a Sports Illustrated article that detailed how even 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 unnerve him; by angering his opponent, he succeeded in distracting him and possibly throwing him off his game plan. 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.
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.
Ali’s prediction failed and in fact round six was Joe’s best of the bout thus far as it signaled Frazier’s taking charge of the contest. A tiring Ali, surprised by the vicious pace and Joe’s constant pressure, took terrible punishment in the middle rounds as Frazier, relentless and driven, imposed his will, forcing his quarry to the ropes again and again. Ali came back in the ninth and tenth, but in the eleventh Frazier staggered Ali, 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 came back in round 14, but then Joe firmly decided matters with a dramatic, final round knockdown, flooring the iron-chinned Ali with a brutal and perfectly timed left hook.
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 good a version of Muhammad Ali, a fighter now recognized by many as the greatest heavyweight champion 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 destroyed Joe’s prime.
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 arguably 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 15 blistering rounds. And Joe Frazier was the better man. — Michael Carbert