- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 10, 2002

Most people labeled it the "Fight of the Century." Elizabeth Taylor's former press agent likened it to "Gone With the Wind." One of the protagonists, the "bad" one, said it was "the greatest event in the history of planet Earth." Frank Sinatra accepted an assignment as a photographer for Life magazine so he could be at ringside (and got one of his pictures on the cover).
March 8, 1971, Madison Square Garden: Undefeated Muhammad Ali vs. undefeated Joe Frazier for the heavyweight championship and perhaps the morality championship of the world.
From a distance of more than three decades, it's difficult to appreciate the impact of this prizefight around the world. Supposedly, it was a battle between good and evil, a latter-day meeting between Cain and Abel, a skirmish between the forces of patriotism and anarchy.
Now, of course, we know it was none of those things simply a monumental clash between two magnificent athletes. But as the two men prepared to do battle, emotion easily overwhelmed logic.
Frazier, the solid, stolid counterpuncher from Philadelphia, was champion. His public persona was that of a decent, modest guy who let his fists do the talking. He had enraged his opponent for months by refusing to use his Black Muslim name. By 1971, most publications and people were referring to the challenger as Muhammad Ali a name he adopted publicly the day after winning the title from Sonny Liston in 1964. But to Frazier, he would always be Cassius Clay.
Ali was loved or detested by millions, with each person's race frequently determining the view. Those who hated him cited his braggadocio, his association with the Black Muslims and his refusal to enter military service after being drafted in 1966 because, famously, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong." Those who loved Ali saw him as a superb example of bravery, equality and individualism. Nobody was neutral.
Convicted of draft evasion and banned from the ring in 1966, Ali lost 3 years in the prime of his career. After the conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1970, he returned to the ring to dispose of trial horses Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena. Now it was time to take on Frazier, who had won the title by defeating Jimmy Ellis following an elimination tournament.
More than 20,000 eyewitnesses crammed into the Garden. Millions around the world watched on closed-circuit television. The purses were astounding for the time; each man took home $2.5 million from a record worldwide gate of nearly $25 million.
In the days before the fight, Ali's hatred of Frazier apparently prompted him to extremes. He called the man known as Smokin' Joe "ignorant," "a gorilla" and an "Uncle Tom" who was boxing's latest "White Hope." Frazier, largely silent as always, simply made it a personal crusade to defeat the loudmouth.
Before the fight, Ali told writer Budd Schulberg, "Frazier's no real champion. Nobody wants to talk to him. Maybe President Nixon will call him if he wins … but 98 percent of my people are with me. They identify with my struggle, the same one they're fighting every day on the streets."
Frazier allowed himself this response: "I'm going to make him quit. No matter what name he goes under, Clay or Ali, he'll quit. The fight won't last 10 rounds. … He can keep that pretty head I don't want it. What I'm going to do is try and pull those kidneys out [by working on Ali's body]."
During the weigh-in, the unpredictable Ali was playful rather than angry. When a New York Boxing Commission doctor asked him if there was any reason he shouldn't fight, Ali replied, "Only one I can think of is if Joe Frazier doesn't show up."
Enough talk. Now the fighters were in the ring, and the tension was unbelievable perhaps the thickest before a title fight since Joe Louis and Max Schmeling had met for the second time 33 years before at Yankee Stadium.
Writing a front-page story in the New York Times, Dave Anderson described how Frazier "broke the wings of the butterfly and smashed the stinger of the bee" in winning a unanimous 15-round decision. If that seemed a little flowery, Anderson was entitled. It was a classic fight, as good as expected, but Frazier clearly dominated against his faster, flashier foe.
In the later rounds, Ali fired all his guns, trying to rescue his fading hopes with a knockout. Instead, it was the challenger who went down, startlingly, when Frazier lashed a left hook to his face in the final round. Ali jumped up immediately, but moments later Frazier stung him with another left. After that, it was just a question of awaiting the bell.
"I always knew who the champion was," Frazier said afterward. Meanwhile, Ali avoided the media and went to a hospital to have a severely swollen jaw examined. But he sent word through assistant trainer Bundini Brown that "we'll be back we ain't through yet."
Frazier's response to questions about a return bout: "I don't think Clay will want one."
Talking with writer Robert Lipsyte afterward, Ali downplayed his first loss. "I'll probably be a better man for it," he said. "There are more important things in life to worry about. … The world goes on. I had my day. You lose, you don't shoot yourself."
As we know, the two fought two more brutal and memorable bouts, with Ali winning a 12-round decision on Jan.28, 1974, at the Garden and Frazier scoring a 15th-round knockout on Sept.10, 1975, in the "Thrilla in Manila." Of the latter, Ali told writer Mark Kram, "We went to Manila as champions, Joe and me, and we came back as old men."
Thirty-one years after their first fight, Frazier and Ali are in late middle age the latter universally mourned and respected for his battle against the ravages of Parkinson's disease. Certainly, both have paid a heavy price for the punishment they inflicted and absorbed in the ring, but that is the nature of this unforgiving and unredeemable sport.
And yet there can be something oddly appealing, indeed almost beautiful, about the specter of two great boxers challenging each other's skills and courage in the ring. Despite all the bombast and subplots, or maybe because of them, Ali-Frazier I really was the Fight of the Century.


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