THEY called it the ‘Fight of the Century’ before a punch had even been thrown. Someone must have known. In time Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier would become inextricably linked, the phrase Ali-Frazier stitched into the boxing glossary forever, but ahead of their first fight on March 8, 1971 at Madison Square Garden nobody could have predicted how the pair would get along. They didn’t know whether their styles would mesh or that the fight would be competitive. They didn’t know which of the two would walk away with the world heavyweight title and which of the two would be the first to have their undefeated record spoiled. They certainly couldn’t have had any firm belief that the first fight would then lead to a rematch and eventually a trilogy.
Fifteen rounds, one knockdown and three scorecards later, however, and the world had a better idea.
Despite its obvious drawbacks, one upside of missing a classic fight live but watching it long after it happened is that you have an even greater appreciation of the quality on show, due primarily to the fact it can be compared with what followed, its impact now established. In the case of Ali vs. Frazier I, any rewatch is easy. A joy. We can, after all, today say with certainty that no subsequent era matched the one in which Ali and Frazier campaigned, and, furthermore, that their reputations as heavyweight greats only flourished in the intervening years.
As well as all that, you also come to realise, with the benefit of hindsight, that those fortunate enough to watch the likes of Ali and Frazier in battles like the ‘Fight of the Century’ were spoiled back then. Truly spoiled.
If in doubt, consider the reaction of spectators in round eight when Frazier, 26-0, pinned Ali, 31-0, against the ropes but was too tired to muster the same ferocity he exhibited in the previous seven rounds. What Frazier opted to do instead was poke and prod with his gloves at Ali’s midsection, luring him into a false sense of security, before then attempting to explode again with heavier shots upstairs. It’s a strange sight to behold, admittedly, because everything up until that point had been so all-or-nothing and hurtful from Frazier, but what also makes it noteworthy is this: as soon as Ali tried to mimic Frazier’s approach with some tapping of his own both the referee and the crowd decided they had had enough. The crowd started to boo, something they would do in a couple of other rounds, and referee Arthur Mercante, acting on their disapproval, told the two heavyweights to start fighting again. Apparently, the ‘Fight of the Century’ had hit a flat spot. Yeah, right.
Rather than a lull, time has reframed this moment not only as insignificant but also as an example of two heavyweights tiring and then strategically trying to switch up the pace of their attacks. Frazier isn’t surrendering, nor taking his foot off the gas. He is simply being considered and calculated in his approach. Ali, too, isn’t grateful for the respite, nor using it to relax, but instead keen to show that if Frazier wants to insult him by softly tapping away at his midsection, he can do the same to Frazier’s face.
Nowadays, I suspect, we see heavyweight boxing through a different, softer, more forgiving lens. With expectations lowered, we are more understanding when heavyweights hold, take rests, don’t look to engage or prefer to cruise to a decision instead of taking the risks required to force a stoppage. We call a cautious, safety-first approach to victory a masterclass. We praise heavyweights for having the dexterity to throw body shots. We marvel at the ones willing to throw combinations and punch consistently for three minutes a round.
The truth is, just as the crowd watching Ali and Frazier begin their historic trilogy were spoiled, we – the ones who missed out – have been starved. We have been starved of heavyweight action like Ali-Frazier and starved of heavyweight talents like Ali and Frazier. Which is perhaps why it is so alarming when you decide to revisit a fight like Ali-Frazier 1 in 2021.
For as big as they would both become, they were smaller back then, relatively speaking. Ali, the challenger, weighed 215 pounds, while Frazier, the champion, came in even lighter at 205 and a half pounds, just five and a half pounds above the current cruiserweight limit (a division which of course didn’t exist back then). Consequently, there was nothing sluggish about Ali or Frazier at Madison Square Garden. Every one of the 15 rounds they shared was considered of great importance, a round they had to win, and rare is it, when watching the fight, that you ever get the sense either of the two fighters was happy to take a round off or save themselves for the final act. Again, this owes to two things: the ideal heavyweight physique and an old-school mentality.
On the subject of mentality, consider Muhammad Ali’s. In round one, Ali, the boxer, the mover, the man known to use his legs and jab and never throw to the body, is quick to realise he won’t be able to evade Frazier for 15 rounds so immediately explores the virtues of Plan B: stand his ground and make a dent in Frazier. It’s a risky strategy, one that plays into Frazier’s hands, yet necessary all the same. Why? Because dancing, or even just moving too much, would have offered Frazier the time, space and momentum required to build up a head of steam and chase Ali. It would have given Frazier the chance to get his head moving, read Ali’s movement, and wind up his patented left hook, a shot he seemed sure would prove to be the undoing of his great rival.
Not only that, in terms of the psychology of the fight, the last thing Ali wanted to be seen doing in the presence of a naturally aggressive man like ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier was retreating, cowering or looking for an escape. To act in this way was to surrender before surrendering was deemed an acceptable option. It was to trade a red rag for a white flag.
So, to gain control Ali would first have to take a dip in the terrain of his opponent and put a stop to whatever Frazier had planned for him. He would have to demonstrate his toughness, not just with punches thrown and exchanges won but also in the exchanges he lost, something apparent as early as the first round when Ali would ship shots from Frazier, usually the hook, and immediately communicate with the crowd to let them know the punches did not hurt. Shaking his head, Ali would at times turn to face the crowd to deliver this message, eager to make them and also Frazier aware that even the bad spots in the fight, the moments in which he was punished, were all part of some bigger plan. It was ego-led, this behaviour, no doubt. Yet it was also tactical, for Ali knew the ability to spit defiance would be every bit as important as the ability to spit back punches at the man heading straight for his chest.
A key Frazier moment, meanwhile, occurred in the fifth round when he finally broke from his machine-like approach to offer Ali a taste of his own medicine. This manifested in the form of a devilish smile seconds after Ali landed on him and then became twice as powerful when he later dropped his hands in front of his challenger.
With head movement and trash talk all he was willing to offer, Frazier had made Ali miss and in doing so made him realise that he was more than just some cross-armed destroyer with only one way of navigating his way through their fight. Best of all, he had shown Ali that a display of hubris and an ability to lower one’s guard during a round is not a sign of superiority, nor something exclusive to the great Muhammad Ali. Instead, he showed that anybody could do it, thus stripping another of Ali’s supposed superpowers.
Still, mental battle or not, it was a fight first and foremost and the action produced by Ali and Frazier is reason enough for it to be rewatched and held in the highest regard. From Ali’s fluid jab, crisp right cross, and vicious hook-cum-uppercut to Frazier’s unremitting head movement, body attack and debilitating left hook, there is something for everyone in this fight and, with the two styles combined, something like the perfect heavyweight fighter on display. Ali jabs in a way Frazier can’t, just as Frazier hooks in a way Ali can’t. Frazier then moves his head and digs to the body in a way Ali can’t, just as Ali can counterpunch and control rounds in ways Frazier can’t. Their many differences and disagreements are somehow what made them the perfect couple, both in terms of personality and technique.
Together, they offered boxing utopia. They fought at a pace you are more accustomed to seeing from middleweights and landed, between them, pretty much every shot in the book. Frazier neglected his jab. Ali neglected body shots. But other than that everything else the two had to offer was on show from round one to 15 and fascinating, too, was how both would go about executing essentially the same shot while applying their own necessary and personal spin on it. The hook, for instance, was, in the hands of Joe Frazier, something thrown long and wild and with frightening power, whereas in the hands of Muhammad Ali it was something thrown sneakily, often on the back foot, and would appear more like an uppercut whipped up from a low angle than the traditional left hook one would associate with a fighter like Frazier. Frazier’s hook worked best when Ali was going backwards, leaving his chin high and exposed, whereas Ali’s hook worked best when Frazier was storming forward with every intention of unleashing one of his own. Same punches, same rules, completely different execution and outcome.
When not punching, Ali’s composure under fire was impressive and perhaps never more so than in round 11, a round in which he also called upon his good chin to help him out. Ali was hit with consecutive hooks, as well as a hurtful blow to the body, and sagged to the ropes, his legs giving out. Most, in that situation, would have been either knocked out or at least knocked down. But not Ali. He grabbed when he needed to grab and responded with punches when he felt Frazier could do with knowing he was still dangerous. Then, with the round about to end, he mocked his own fragility by wobbling his legs as he retreated to a corner, a sign once again that he was thinking about mind games even with his body betraying him. (If Frazier was physically getting the better of him, Ali still understood there was a psychological battle to be won.)
Frazier, though, wouldn’t be controlled – not that easily. By round 12, in fact, he was the one smiling, pulling faces and talking to Ali. He was the one momentarily breaking form to show he was capable of dropping his hands and attacking from different angles – that is, doing the Ali stuff. Though it would not win him rounds, this was Frazier proving his intelligence in much the same way Ali, standing his ground rather than looking to survive, was now proving his toughness.
‘Smokin’ Joe’s payoff arrived in the 15th and final round. It was then everything at last made sense: his relentless approach and bobbing head; his willingness to walk through Ali’s straight counters; his determination to force Ali to punch; his unwavering faith in his own left hook. While ahead on all three scorecards, he could not be sure and, moreover, fought the last round like a man who did not care either way. A win, to Frazier, was about more than numbers read by a man with a microphone. It was about leaving a lasting impression. It was about doing to an opponent what the opponent could not do to him.
The knockdown in the last round clinched this for Frazier. It was produced by a stunning left hook on Ali’s chin and, though Ali recovered from it, the punch confirmed something Frazier never appeared to doubt from first bell to last. In sticking with the shot, this hellacious hook he had been firing from the outset, Frazier proved he was not only tough enough to continually get himself in range to land it but, more importantly, that he was smart enough to adjust and eventually, after numerous failed attempts, make it count.
Ali, for so long the all-seeing, all-knowing magician of the boxing ring, for once never saw it coming.