By Randy De La O
I'm trying to find some kind of way to describe to a younger generation just how big the first fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali was. If ever there was a fight that could accurately be deemed “The Fight of the Century” this was the one. It is often, just simply called “The Fight”. No explanation is needed.
Oh, there were other so called “Fights of the Century” but in terms of historic epic heavyweight fights, only Joe Louis vs Max Schmeling II, and perhaps Jack Johnson vs James J. Jeffries come close. But this fight had something that no other heavyweight fight before it had; two undefeated heavyweights, each with a legitimate claim to the heavyweight title, the biggest prize in all of sports, perhaps the biggest prize anywhere. Add to that all the media attention that was not available to those other fights. The timing was right.
So big was the fight across the world that countries shut down and a war was put on hold – Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali were going to fight. Celebrities, politicians, anyone and everyone wanted to be part of the act. Frank Sinatra himself was to cover the fight as the photographer for Life magazine (I have that issue).
I was a junior in high school when this fight took place. When I think, talk or write about this fight, or either fighter, it is always through the eyes of a 16 year old boy, I can't help it. As I write this my eyes are welling up with tears as I remember. Both of these guys were my boxing heroes. It was hard for me to think of them fighting each other.
If you have read anything I have written before you know that my heart sometimes-No, make that always-overrides my head. I wear my heart on my sleeves. There is no hiding who I like and who I dislike. So when it was announced that Frazier and Ali were going to fight, I was besides myself, trying to decide where to place my loyalty. Ultimately, I put my $5.00 weekly lunch money on Smokin' Joe (I didn't tell my parents).
My father, a fighter in the army, was an old school fight fan and came from a time when fighters fought, not talked, and so he was not a fan of Ali. His guys were; Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Jerry Quarry and of course, Joe Frazier. Many from that generation could never quite warm up to Ali's bombastic style of boasting. Me? I ate it up. I knew it was all an act. Still, Joe Frazier; stoic, fierce and with a determined scowl, pacing back and forth like a wild cat, anticipating his prey, really grabbed me.
Ali had a way of getting inside a fighter's head. He would find out what another fighter's button was and than push it, and no one could push it like Ali. Frazier had built a wall around himself and Ali was never able to penetrate it. What we know now, that we didn't know then, or at least I didn't, was that Ali's words did hurt Joe. The “Uncle Tom” and “Gorilla” tags hurt Joe to the core of his being and he carried that resentment and anger throughout his life.
Somehow, Joe was able to channel that anger inside the ring. Relentless, forward moving and constantly throwing punches, but always in control.
Ali, as almost everyone already knows, was coming back from a three year exile. His last fight before he was stripped of the heavyweight title was a 15 round title defense against Zora Folley, stopping Folley in the 7th round and defending his WBA title.
It would be three years before Ali would fight again. In his comeback Ali had taken on a new persona. He was now a genuine folk hero. He had taken a stance against the U.S. Government and the Viet Nam War and he won. As much as he was hated, or disliked before the exile, the political and social change that had swept the country made him bigger than ever. Not to say that there were no longer any Ali haters, but they were no longer the majority.
Ali fought again on October, 1970 when a fight was finally secured in Atlanta, Georgia against popular and ever tough West Coast favorite, “Irish” Jerry Quarry. Ali would stop Quarry in the 3rd round. Officially the fight was a TKO due to cuts.
His next bout was with Argentina's Oscar Bonavena in December of 1970, at Madison Square Garden, New York. Ali stopped Bonavena in the 15th round after knocking the Argentinian down three times in the final round. Ali had dominated the fight. Next up: Joe Frazier.
In June of 1969, Frazier defeated Jerry Quarry – in Ring Magazine's fight of the year- to win the New York version of the heavyweight title by stopping Quarry in the 7th round of their scheduled 15 round fight.
Next on Frazier's hit list was Jimmy Ellis, for the vacant WBC title, as well as the WBA heavyweight title, also at stake was Joe's NYSAC heavyweight title. Ellis had won his version of the heavyweight championship by defeating Jerry Quarry a year earlier to win the heavyweight tournament. Ellis would be TKO'ed in 5 rounds. The fight was scheduled for 15 rounds. Joe Frazier was now the Heavyweight Champion of the world. Joe made quick work of his next opponent, light heavy king, Bob Foster, as Foster attempted to take the crown from Frazier. Foster was knocked out in the 2nd round. Next up: Muhammad Ali.
Back at school, as the fight was approaching, those that followed boxing, and even those that didn't typically follow the sport, were broken into two camps: Frazier or Ali. It wasn't just school though, it was like that everywhere. I stayed out of any arguments. Despite the fact that I had picked Frazier to win, I was still a fan of Ali. I picked Frazier because, at that time and from what I had seen. I thought him invincible. As far as my heart was concerned, I was loyal to both. I would say nothing bad about Ali. Both were the heavyweight champions.
This was all taking place before cable and PPV television. So we had to depend on the news from the radio and of course, from the paper the next day. The fight took place at Madison Square Garden, in New York. The Garden and New York were still the epicenter of boxing in those days. The referee was Arthur Mercante. Joe Frazier beat Ali by unanimous decision and was now the absolute undisputed heavyweight champion of the word. Ali was down in the 15th round as a result of a Frazier left hook. I still have the newspaper from that day, forty plus years later. It's wrinkled, fragile and yellow now. It's in a box somewhere. The fight was front page news all across the globe.
I had bragging rights at school, but really as happy as I was that Frazier had won the fight I was equally unhappy that Ali had lost. I was going to feel that way regardless of who won and lost. It's the price you pay for loving your fighters.
Over the years I have seen the fight on rebroadcasts and later on Youtube (a boxing fans best friend). Ali seemed in control in the early rounds but Joe was smoking and he just was not going to lose. I never tire of watching it.
They fought three times in total. Their last fight , in 1975, was “The Thrilla in Manilla” which might have even surpassed the first fight. That fight ended in the 14th round when trainer and cornerman, the late and great Eddie Futch refused to let Joe come out for the final round. It's said that both men were near death that day. Whether that's true or not, I couldn't say. What I do know is that both men damaged each other. They fought each other with every fiber of their beings. They took each other to a place that most of us will never see or imagine. Neither of them were never again the same. Their fights with each other were of epic, almost mythical proportion. They were giants.
Their rivalry and trilogy was one for the ages. Their feud transcended the ring. In the last couple of years, they finally made peace with each other. Joe forgave Ali for the words, and belittlement. God Bless him for that.
I was lucky to be a fight fan when giants still fought in the ring. Smokin' Joe Frazier, a fighter's fighter and a man's man. Goodbye Joe, I'll miss you!