There is no way to truly capture the power and the glory of what was going to happen 50 years ago in the ring at Madison Square Garden.
There will be accounts of the social impact of that March 8, 1971, showdown between two undefeated heavyweight champions — Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier — a nation divided by a generation gap, the Vietnam War and the symbols of the sides that both fighters represented.
Ali had won the heavyweight championship with a stunning upset of Sonny Liston in February 1964 and successfully defended the title nine times before being banned from fighting for 3½ years for refusing draft induction in the U.S. Army.
Still undefeated in the ring, Ali would return to the ring in October 1970 to stop Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena two months later, setting the stage for his fight on March 8 with Frazier, who had been building up his own impressive undefeated record to win the heavyweight championship while Ali was banned.
It would be perhaps the biggest sporting event of the second half of the 20th century, with a $5 million purse that Washington’s NFL owner, Jack Kent Cooke, put up to split between the two fighters. Burt Lancaster was hired as the analyst for the closed-circuit broadcast. Frank Sinatra took pictures for Life Magazine.
Ali represented the anti-war faction and the young generation in the country that was bucking the standard norms their parents embraced. Frazier represented the establishment — something the Philadelphia fighter never asked for, because, for Joe Frazier, this was simply a fight.
“The hype didn’t really get to Joe,” his trainer, the late, great Eddie Futch, told me in a lengthy interview about the historic fight. “Joe wasn’t the kind that cared about what people said or thought. He was impervious to those things.”
Except when it came to Ali.
“Joe and Yank (Durham, Frazier’s manager) had worked behind the scenes to try to help Ali get reinstated … to throw whatever weight they had behind getting Ali back in action,” said Futch, who passed away in October 2001. “It made good sense because it made a terrific matchup.
“Joe resented it when Ali started making all those personal attacks on him to hype the gate at the fight. He didn’t think that was necessary. He felt betrayed. But so far as what the news media thought about him and his chances against Ali, that didn’t bother Joe at all. He was always confident of his own abilities. I was always amused at the way he would look at his opponent in the ring while the referee would give the instructions – not with a glare. He didn’t try to intimidate. He’d just smile faintly, with a look sort of like, ‘I can’t wait to get to you.’ That was what his look said.”
Frazier also had a plan that gave him confidence — a strategy prepared by Futch that proved successful.
“Ali was a great fighter,” Futch said. “He was even greater than what most people thought he was because he had limited ability and he made that work. Ali hardly ever threw a body punch. He never ducked a punch. He always pulled back or away from a punch, blocked it or slipped it. He never ducked, never went down at all.
“I charted Ali’s strengths, the things he was a master at, and I also charted the things that he couldn’t do,” Futch said. “So I set up our strategy to avoid his strengths as much as we possibly could and to exploit his weaknesses as much as we possibly could.
“One of them was that he could not throw the right hand uppercut properly,” Futch said. “So we had Joe bob and weave in a more exaggerated way, just a little lower than he normally did, and stay in close so he could work the body, and watch for Ali’s right hand to drop to throw the uppercut. He would try to dig Joe out of that stance, and he would have to do it with the uppercut, and he would stand up straight, didn’t bend his knees, didn’t bend his body to throw the uppercut.
“So I told Joe, ‘This minute you see his right hand come down, you throw the left hook. He’s got nothing up there. You could catch him with the left hook,’’ Futch said “The only time you hit Ali is when he is punching. When he throws the uppercut, you hit Ali when he is punching. When he throws the uppercut, you throw the hook. And that’s the punch that hurt him so badly in the 11th round and that’s the punch that knocked him down in the 15th round.”
It worked: Frazier won a unanimous decision over Ali in the first professional loss of Ali’s career.
They would fight again two more times — a forgettable fight and victory by Ali by decision in 1974 when neither one was champion, and another historic battle in 1975, the “Thrilla in Manila” in which Ali, who had recaptured his title with an upset win over George Foreman, won when Futch stopped the fight after 14 rounds when Frazier’s eyes were so swollen he could no longer see the punches coming.
But there was nothing like the “Fight of the Century” 50 years ago.
“That first fight with Ali was the biggest fight,” Futch said. “Both had legitimate claims to the title. Ali had been stripped of his title and didn’t lose it in the ring. Joe had won against the best that there was out there.”
Listen to Thom Loverro on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast Tuesdays and Thursdays.