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The Mass Media

Ali-Frazier, the 50 year rivalry to end all rivalries


Muhammad Ali in N.Y.C. 1997.

On March 8, 1971, in Madison Square Garden, two men took to the boxing ring in the most famous arena in the world. And the entire world was watching them. Hundreds of millions of people around the globe saw the fight, from Europe to Africa, Asia to South America, and so forth. The sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden was packed with celebrities and luminaries. Frank Sinatra covered the photography for Life magazine. Norman Mailer acted as stenographer for what was about to unfold. Various others, such as Barbra Streisand, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dustin Hoffman were faces in the crowd. But the event was not complete without mentioning the two men squaring off in the ring.

Cassius Clay was born to poverty in Louisville, Kentucky, and he turned to boxing as a kind of escape from the problems surrounding him. And boy, was he good at boxing. Clay won gold for the U.S. at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. His opponent, Joe Frazier, who also won Olympic gold in Tokyo in 1964, had a similarly rough upbringing, being born to sharecroppers in South Carolina. He then moved to Philadelphia, where he worked in a meat locker, hitting slabs of beef with his fists. The same year that Frazier won gold, Clay stunned the world twice, first by beating Sonny Liston for boxing’s heavyweight championship, then by converting to Islam and changing his name to Muhammad Ali.

Ali dominated the heavyweight division in boxing for the next few years, but in 1967, he ran into an opponent that did not respond well to punches: The United States government. On April 28 of that year, Ali refused to be drafted into the armed forces, famously saying that he had “no quarrel” with the Viet Cong, that war was against his religious beliefs as a Muslim, and that he opposed fighting for a country that still treated him as a second-class citizen at home due to his race. Ali was stripped of his championship and convicted by a grand jury for refusing to be drafted. However, Ali was not sent to jail because of the appeals process, and, although he was reviled across a wide swath of America for his stance on the U.S. military engagement in Vietnam, Ali simultaneously became an icon of the nascent antiwar and civil rights movements. In 1970, his boxing license was reinstated, and the former champ was allowed to compete for the title he never actually lost. (His conviction would later be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971.)

In Ali’s absence from the sport of boxing, Frazier became a legend in his own right. He beat Jimmy Ellis to win the heavyweight championship in 1970. Frazier, who was an acquaintance if not a friend of Ali’s, was a strong proponent of the former being allowed to box again. By 1971, as casualties on both sides began to pile up and whatever goals the U.S. may have had at the beginning of the war began to seem increasingly hopeless, public support across America for the war began to fall significantly, and even those who castigated Ali for what they felt was a subversive and unpatriotic stance on the war began to sympathize with his point of view.

Unlike the brash and outspoken Ali, Frazier was a much more silent and stoic champion. Whether he intended it or not, Frazier saw himself become the favored choice of the more conservative segment of America that tended to support the war in Vietnam and therefore look down on Ali’s unapologetic mixing of boxing and social activism. Ali knew this and was more than happy to brighten the distinctions between the two. Never one to shy away from jabs both physical and verbal, Ali relentlessly needled Frazier with insults like “sellout”, “gorilla”, “white man’s champion”, and so forth.

In essence, Ali wanted to say that the same powers that be who stripped him of his title, and tried to put him in jail for his beliefs wanted Frazier to stay champion. With all the hype leading up to it, if the “Fight of the Century” didn’t live up to the name, it would’ve been a massive letdown. It not only lived up to the hype, it exceeded it many times over. The fight lasted an unbelievable 15 rounds, with both men giving it their all. However, one man would emerge victorious. In round 15, Frazier finally connected with a devastating blow to Ali’s jaw, knocking the former champ to the mat. Seeing mighty Muhammad Ali, who had never lost in his professional career up to that point, get put on the ground with one blow was a shocking moment for the worldwide audience watching the fight.

Ali got back up almost instantaneously after being knocked down, but by that point, it was too late. Perhaps being out of the ring for too long put him at a disadvantage, as the old Ali was famously nimble in the ring and rarely took that kind of punishment from his opponents. Whatever the case may be, it proved to be decisive, as Frazier was declared the winner of the fight via unanimous decision, retaining his championship and giving Ali the first loss of his professional career.

Frazier lost the title to George Foreman in a stunning upset. As so often was the case, Frazier’s loss was Ali’s gain. Ali beat Foreman for the heavyweight championship in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974 in the also-legendary bout known as the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Ali and Frazier would meet twice more in their careers; in 1974’s “Super fight II” and in 1975’s “Thrilla in Manila”. In his later years, Ali would concede that he went too far in his verbal abuse of Frazier, saying it was mostly just a way of generating publicity for the fight. The two men would reconcile after they both retired and became good friends before the end of their lives.

The term “legendary” is thrown around a lot in our culture, but only a few people could truly claim the worthiness of being called by that term. Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali were certainly among those people. Through their trilogy of matches, they redefined what it meant to be an athlete in the 20th century. Not too many others can claim the kind of legacy that they did: There’s a reason, 50 years later, that we still talk about them with bated breath.

About the Contributor
Jack Sherman, Sports Writer