IT was a battle between two hall-of-famers at very different stages of their respective careers. For Ali it was an important fight just before what was arguably the best years of his career – with wins over Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton still to come. For Patterson it would be the last time he graced a boxing ring, a glittering career crashed to an end with an emphatic loss. The final image of the former heavyweight champion of the world’s career; departing from the arena with his left eye almost completely swollen shut in front of 17,378 spectators at Madison Square Garden. Before the fight the undisputed heavyweight champion Joe Frazier, who had already defeated Ali in the first matchup of their famous trilogy, was brought into the ring and introduced to the crowd. A theatrically enraged Ali went after Frazier, but would have to wait another 14 months before the pair met again, in the exact same ring, for their eventual rematch.
The rematch – Ali had cruelly gunned down Patterson in 1965 – started out evenly enough, with both fighters bringing forth their familiar style. Ali danced around Patterson, controlling the range with a casual flick of the jab, whilst Patterson found occasional success with a lunging left hook – a punch which had already floored Ali at the hands of Sonny Banks, Henry Cooper and Joe Frazier. After an inauspicious start it was in the third round when the tempo picked up, Ali unleashed his right and Patterson began to cut the distance, working well on the inside. An overhand right caught Patterson flush on the ropes, and the champion began to unload. Deciding to take his time, for most of the fourth Ali barely threw a punch, instead bending over with his chin out and inviting Floyd to go to work, delighting at every evaded punch. As the round progressed and the two engaged, Patterson forced the champion back with relentless hooks, with Ali keeping a tight guard in defence. If the fight had been decided on appearance alone Patterson would have walked away the easy victor. Even at 37 years of age he came out in peak physical condition, with his opponent looking slightly more out of shape. Ali had started casually, or lazily depending on which way you look at it; but no longer toying with his opponent, he met Patterson in the centre of the ring early on in the fifth, the two trading heavy blows as the crowd awoke with excitement. In Ali’s corner Bundini Brown shouted his usual mantra “let’s go to war!” as the action picked up. Ali answered the call, starting the sixth with clubbing hooks of his own, sending Patterson back against the ropes. His superior height, strength and speed began to show as a flurry of punches drew blood and formed a dangerous swelling over the left eye of Patterson. Increasingly desperate but ever-brave, Floyd resorted to jumping in with wilder hooks, at times catching the champion, at times getting caught off balance and eating big counters. A ferocious Ali replied by taking the centre of the ring and landing accurate and damaging blows, battering Patterson around the ring and making every punch count.
For fans of Patterson, and of boxing in general, the seventh and final round makes difficult viewing. The beleaguered ex-champ was being bullied around the ring, falling to his knee early on from what referee Arthur Mercante ruled a slip. Ali teed-off at will, stalking his prey and continuing to land hurtful blows, which Patterson could barely see through his one good eye. To his credit, Floyd once more showcased his heart through battling on throughout the onslaught to hear the bell at the end of the round, in what would turn about to be the death knell on a truly great career. After sitting through a long inspection of his eye in the corner, Patterson stood up in defiance to fight through the eighth round, however the referee saved the proud fighter from himself – waving the fight off and declaring Ali the winner.
After the fight Ali paid tribute to his twice-beaten foe, “Patterson is a great, great fighter. I thought he’d be nothing, but he surprised me. I didn’t knock him out. I didn’t get him on a TKO. All I did was close his eye.” His forceful win had brought to an end the thrilling 55-8-1 (40) career of an Olympic gold medallist and two-time world champion. As for Ali, on a night where ‘The Greatest’ was below his own self-set standard of brilliance, his artistry and dominance was still on show. There would be bigger nights and better fights to come for Ali, but Patterson’s was nonetheless an impressive scalp on an already packed record.