Ali-Frazier a rivalry that defines sports

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Joe Frazier heads to a neutral corner after knocking Muhammad Ali down in the 15th round at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971.

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier shared a ring together for 41 rounds, including 15 rounds in perhaps the most famous bout ever held, on March 8, 1971. That bout was the first time in boxing history that two undefeated fighters with claim to the title met in the ring.

Frazier won the first fight, knocking Ali down in the 15th with perhaps the best left hook ever thrown in a major fight.

The world stood still for that fight, and even 47 years later, it remains the topic of much discussion.

They met twice more, in a 12-round non-title bout on Jan. 28, 1974, in The Garden that Ali won by a decision, and then on Oct. 1, 1975, in The Philippines which Ali won by stoppage after 14 grueling rounds.

Their rivalry riveted the world. They appeared together on television hundreds of times, including this appearance on The Mike Douglas Show that was aired sometime before Ali regained his boxing license. On the show, they discussed the possibility of fighting each other.

There were hundreds of others, because Ali was the biggest name in boxing and boxing was still considered a mainstream sport at that time. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ali had the most recognizable face in the world.

In 1974, the appeared together on The Dick Cavett Show. Ali asked Cavett, “I can whip Joe Frazier. Can you whip Johnny Carson?”

They finally met for the first time on March 8, 1971, in a bout dubbed, “The Fight of the Century.” It remains the standard by which all others are judged. It was so big that Frank Sinatra was a ringside photographer and Academy Award-winner Burt Lancaster was one of the color commentators.

I wonder how different the fight would have been had they met in 1968 or 1969 if Ali hadn’t had the three-year exile from boxing. The first was a classic match, but Frazier’s pressure and activity were the difference.

I was 11 and remember listening to the radio that night. Every three rounds, there was a report about how the action was going in the fight.

The next morning, it was front page news in newspapers around the world. I was an 11-year-old living in Pittsburgh and I read about it in the Pittsburgh Press the next day. The Press, an afternoon paper, had a sizable story on Page 1A, but devoted its entire sports front to the bout.

Pittsburgh Press March 9, 1971

The front page of The Pittsburgh Press on March 9, 1971, shows Muhammad Ali, not Joe Frazier, even though Frazier won by unanimous decision.

Pittsburgh Press Sports March 9 1971

The first Ali-Frazier fight was so big that The Pittsburgh Press devoted the entire front page of its sports section to coverage of the fight on March 9, 1971.

Though Frazier clearly won the first fight, the appetite to see them again did not abate. They met in a non-title fight that is kind of the lost fight of the series. Frazier had lost his world title a year earlier to George Foreman, and it would be 10 months before Ali would upset Foreman to regain the belt.

In those days, the title belts mattered, and while it was still a major event, it didn’t have the cultural implications that either the first or the third bout in their rivalry would have. It was just a good, classic heavyweight boxing match, which Ali won by decision.

Ali regained the title by knocking out the seemingly invincible Foreman later that year, setting up the rubber match, in what became (and still remains) one of the five best bouts in modern boxing history.

It was around 100 degrees with smothering humidity on fight day in Quezon City, Philippines, and the two men were past their primes, without question. The bout did no good for either, even though Ali earned $6 million and Frazier $3 million, which, when adjusted for inflation, would be $27 million and $13.5 million, respectively, today.

Both absorbed tremendous punishment, and no doubt led to permanent damage in each of them.

I was fortunate enough to get to know the great Eddie Futch, who as Frazier’s trainer that night, after I moved to Las Vegas. Futch, who died in 2001, stopped the bout after the 14th round, much to Frazier’s protestations. On the occasions we spoke about the bout, Futch would always say that he thought of Frazier’s family, and how much they loved him, and not the championship when he decided to stop the bout.

Their rivalry remained long after both retired from boxing for good in 1981, and to a degree, it exists after their deaths.

A few years before his 2011 death, I sat in the press room at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City along with a handful of other reporters shooting the breeze with Frazier. Somehow the topic turned to Ali, as it always seemed to do. Frazier sighed and said, ‘We left big pieces of ourselves in there for ya’lls enjoyment.”

Boxing has never been the same without them.

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