Ali-Frazier 1-The Fight of the Century
The “Fight of the Century” was the first of three bouts between heavyweight champions Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali in the 1970s. Held on March 8, 1971, the Fight of the Century pitted reigning undefeated heavyweight champion Frazier (26-0, 23 KO) against the challenger Ali (31-0, 25 KO), who’d never been beaten in the ring in his professional career but had been stripped of his title four years earlier. Frazier won the 15-round fight in an unanimous decision in front of a capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York.
In 1967, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title for refusing induction into the U.S. Army. Earlier that year, Ali, then the undisputed champion, first met an up-and-coming heavyweight, Joe Frazier, who was 14-0 at the time. The two formed a friendship which extended into Ali’s banishment from boxing. Frazier helped support Ali financially, while also refusing to participate in the WBA’s elimination tournament for Ali’s vacated belt.
Frazier eventually won the title in 1970 by defeating Jimmy Ellis. Later that year, Ali returned to the ring, defeating Jerry Quarry in Georgia, where there was no state boxing commission. After the Quarry fight, the New York State Supreme Court ruled Ali had been unjustly denied a boxing license, and he was allowed to fight in New York again. He returned to Madison Square Garden in December 1970, stopping Oscar Bonavena in 15 rounds and setting the state for a matchup of unbeatens between Ali and Frazier.
Once the fight was announced, the media attention became intense. Both fighters were the subject of multiple magazine cover stories and significant television coverage and had each been guaranteed $2.5 million for the fight, a record at the time. Tickets for the event sold out a month in advance and were so hard to come by that singer Frank Sinatra agreed to photograph the fight for Life magazine just to guarantee a ringside spot.
A week before the fight, Frazier received a death threat, warning him to “lose or else,” and a follow-up telephone call repeated the message. Extra security was added to Frazier’s detail, and a bomb squad was brought to Frazier’s hotel, but nothing was found.
On the day of the fight, Ali told the press, “If Joe Frazier whips me, I’m going to get on my knees and crawl across the ring, look up and say, ‘You are the greatest.’” Though Frazier was the 7 to 5 favorite, Ali brought the attitude that he was the champion, not the challenger, into the ring. He tried to set the tone early, dominating the first two rounds. However, Frazier wasn’t fazed by Ali’s speed and quickly turned the fight back in his direction.
By the fifth round, Ali had started to abandon his strategy of moving around the middle of the ring and began retreating to the ropes. He tried to block Frazier’s punches and tie him up, a strategy that kept Ali in the fight, but made it easy for judges to give rounds to Frazier.
Ali was able to use his jab to batter Frazier’s face, but it wasn’t having an effect on the champion’s stamina. Finally in the 11th round, Frazier was able to connect with a hard hook, buckling Ali’s knees. As Ali stumbled around the ring, he briefly slipped down, with referee Arthur Mercante getting to a two-count before ruling it a no knockdown.
After coming out strong in the 12th, Ali retreated to the ropes again in the 13th round, continuing to focus his punching attention on Frazier’s face. As Frazier’s face swelled in the 14th round, Ali seemed to be rejuvenated. However, that didn’t last long. Just 20 seconds into the 15th and final round, Frazier put all of his weight behind a left hook that sent Ali to the canvas. Ali got up at the four-count and took the mandatory eight-count but didn’t seriously challenged Frazier for the rest of the round.
Frazier won a unanimous decision. Judge Artie Aidala scored the bout 9-6, judge Bill Recht scored it 11-4 and referee Arthur Mercante scored it 8-6-1. After the fight, Ali had to be taken to the hospital, leaving without speaking to the media.
After the fight, Ali and Frazier spent time in the hospital recovering. Frazier’s manager, Yancey Durham, urged Frazier to retire, while promoters wanted to set up a rematch between Ali and Frazier in Los Angeles. Frazier ended up taking the remainder of 1971 off, before returning to the ring in 1972. He won two more title defenses, before losing the title to George Forman.
Ali returned to the ring less than five months later, defeating Jimmy Ellis in Houston, the first of 10 consecutive wins, before a 12-round loss to Ken Norton in 1973.
Ali and Frazier would not meet in the ring again until Jan. 28, 1974 — nearly three years after their first fight — in a non-title bout won by Ali. They completed their famous trilogy in 1975, when Ali defeated Frazier in “The Thrilla in Manila.”