Undoubtedly, the most momentous sporting event in New York City history took place roughly 50 years ago to the day that you’ll be reading this story.
On March 8, 1971 Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden, before nearly 20,500 people, for the heavyweight championship of the world. Frazier won in a unanimous decision, but the weight of the glamour of the spectacle and deep sociological meaning have come to overshadow the outcome in the eyes of boxing and New York historians.
How big was it? It marked the first time in modern boxing history that two undefeated heavyweights battled for the undisputed title. Frazier was 26-0 with TWENTY-THREE knockouts. Ali sported a 31-0 record.
How hyped? Each fighter took home a purse of $2.5 million, then a breathtaking sum.
How glitzy? Frank Sinatra worked that night as a photographer for Life magazine. Sammy Davis Jr., Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Dustin Hoffman and Hugh Hefner all sat at ringside, where seats cost $150 apiece. Burt Lancaster was a commentator on the closed-circuit broadcast team. Every New York celebrity from Woody Allen to Walt “Clyde” Frazier attended the fight.
No wonder it was billed as “The Fight of the Century.” As a match, it did not disappoint, going the full 15 rounds, highlighted by “Smoking Joe” Frazier throwing the left hook of a lifetime and knocking down Ali. Although stunned by the ferocity of the punch, “The Greatest” quickly jumped off the canvas to his feet.
Mark Kram wrote in Sports Illustrated:
“The thrust of this fight on the public consciousness is incalculable. It has been a ceaseless whir that seems to have grown in decibel with each new soliloquy by Ali, with each dead calm promise by Frazier. It has magnetized the imagination of ring theorists and flushed out polemicists of every persuasion. It has cut deep into the thicket of our national attitudes, and it is a conversational imperative everywhere—from the gabble of big-city salons and factory lunch breaks rife with unreasoning labels, to ghetto saloons with their own false labels.”
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Mostly, there was Muhammad Ali, again fighting for the title for the first time in four years - and in the World’s Most Famous Arena, as Madison Square Garden has billed itself over the years.
Some necessary history: Ali (born Cassius Clay) won the title from Sonny Liston as a brash, 22-year-old upstart in February 1964 in Miami Beach, of all places. He had been photographed earlier that month “knocking out” John, Paul, George and Ringo in a fantastic photo op. The four Beatles were in town to get some sun after performing before a national television audience of 73 million people on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Oh yes, it was a heady time for young, dashing, photogenic heroes.
Ali rather easily defended his title successfully for the next three years. Then, in 1967, he refused to be inducted into the U.S. military and the authorities stripped him of his title. In need of cash, Ali embarked on tours of college campuses and became a folk hero during the anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960s.
For three-and-a-half years Ali bided his title until he gained permission to fight again in the U.S. After two warm-up fights in the span of a few months, he was lined up to fight Frazier who had taken the championship belt in Ali’s absence.
The fight also contained race overtones, even though both fighters were admirable, proud Black men. Because Ali had refused to “take the step” into the army, he was hailed as a counterculture icon while Frazier got stuck with the reputation as being the pride of the pro-war movement. He was unfairly reputed to be a somehow lesser man, since he had continued to fight in the white man’s sports world.
Ali, a born showman (and something of a shaman), shamelessly took advantage of the situation and loved the media crush. Meanwhile, the stoic, serious Frazier was no match for the quick-witted Ali, who endeared himself to non-boxing fans and expanded his audience by reciting his funny poems on TV. Frazier sensibly stuck to an obsessive training regimen.
The Historical Meaning
Over the years, the Rangers and the Knicks won thrilling game sevens at the Garden to capture their league championships. True, the Giants beat the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl, and the Mets and Yankees won the World Series on their home fields.
There has never been a sports event quite like the first Ali-Frazier for the hype, the money, the race overtones and the sheer majesty of a great, great fight.
The dynamic duo went on to fight two more times, but, crucially, without the same cultural importance. Maybe it was just as well, too.
No way they could have matched the excitement of March 8, 1971, though their subsequent bouts were exciting and hard fought to the end. Still, anything that came later would have have had to be a big letdown.