By James Slater: Those that were there, from both the fan variety and from the professional variety, said that what they were witnessing inside Madison Square Garden in the very heart of New York in March of 1971, was not so much a huge heavyweight boxing confrontation between two unbeaten fighters, but a “happening” – an event so big it was one that would never be matched in their lifetime.
Up there with a certain Beatles T.V appearance, a one-off Michael Jackson performance, or a life-changing political assassination, the Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali title fight that took place exactly four decades ago today will never be forgotten. So much was at stake on March 8th of ’71 – not just for the well-paid practitioners, but for every single spectator. This was SO MUCH more than just a boxing match.
The political mainstream, as represented (unwillingly or not) by Frazier, supported the ongoing Vietnam war. The opposition to this war was represented (certainly willingly) by Ali and the Black Muslims, and whoever won inside the squared circle on March 8th would be able to make a greater case for their beliefs.
Not since Joe Louis met Germany’s Max Schmeling at the crucial point of WW II had such a politically relevant boxing match taken place!
Both fighters entered the ring with unimaginable pressure pushing down on their shoulders, and defeat was unthinkable for either warrior. Ali wouldn’t let the “Uncle Tom” prove he was the stronger, better man. Frazier would not let the “Betrayer” take the top spot in the entire sporting world.
Both men, in their 20’s and close to their physical peak (Ali, of course, had had just two comeback wins, following his near-four-year exile – one enforced on him due to his political views), went to war at the opening bell in New York’s grandest sporting arena and, with social and political superstars such as Frank Sinatra and John. F. Kennedy Junior taking ringside photos, the two athletes spilt blood.
For fifteen brutal rounds, surrounded by fur coat-wearing, cocktail-swilling millionaires, the two black men who had worked their way out of impoverished backgrounds (in Frazier’s case especially), gave way more for their cause than any paid performer has before or since. Both men threw punches that were alternately coated with immense beauty and ugly savagery, and during the “Fight Of The Century” both American heroes drew cheers from those that had paid a small fortune to have the privilege of being sat where they were.
Ali, the emerging political movements’ favourite, felt real hurt in the 11th and 15th- rounds, when he was staggered and dropped respectively. The advantage was with “underdog” Joe, and nothing the general climate of the United States felt about things could make any difference. The “unbeatable” Ali was, as Joe later put it, “Getting his ass whupped!”
The decision, after 15-rounds that put both gladiators in hospital, was unanimous – in humble, “Little ‘ol’ me,” Joe Frazier’s favour.
Ali later claimed he’d won (“If you looked at his face next to mine there’s no comparison”); Frazier, the “Uncle Tom,” went to church.
The country braced itself for a further four years in Vietnam. The sporting world braced itself in the knowledge that boxing would never again see as big, as epic, as important a heavyweight title fight!
It was 40-years ago today, and as Sports Illustrated have asked: “Where were you!?”