March 8 marks 40 years since arguably the most famous boxing match of all time, the “Fight Of The Century” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. It’s a testament to both those men (and to George Foreman) that so many of the other contenders for that title also involve them: The “Rumble In The Jungle” of 1974 (Ali vs Foreman) and the “Thrilla In Manila” (Ali and Frazier) of 1975, not to mention Ali’s “phantom punch” bout against Sonny Liston in 1965.
Heavyweight boxing seemed so much more exciting in that era. For sure, those iconic bout names the promoters came up with didn’t hurt, neither, of-course, did the artistry of the athletes. But boxing in those glory days of the 60s and 70s was never just about the fighting. Alongside the personalities of names like Ali, Frazier and Foreman there were fellow giants of the sport in Ken Norton, Larry Holmes, Earnie Shavers, Sonny Liston, Oscar Bonavena, Henry Cooper and Floyd Patterson.
And beyond the fighters and their personalities was the backdrop of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the emergence of pay-per-view TV. For the first time sports stars could command multi-million dollar fees and the US$2.5 million that Ali and Frazier each received 40 years ago is all the more phenomenal because it stills sounds substantial today.
In a time of only a handful of TV channels, when Ed Sullivan could interview a band you’d never heard of and the next day they were the biggest act in America, when most households habitually watched the news and read the paper, when everyone on the planet knew Muhammad Ali had been forced out of the ring for political and religious reasons, when sports fans around the world knew Joe Frazier had one of the most ferocious left-hooks in history, when both fighters were undefeated as world champions, when Life magazine asked Frank Sinatra to be their ringside photographer; that fight in New York on March 8th 1971 was as big as sport got.
Ali had been out of the ring for three years and been stripped of his title for his Vietnam draft refusal. During his absence Frazier emerged as the dominant fighter of the time and had even lobbied President Nixon to reinstate Ali’s boxing license – a fact he still feels his rival gave him little thanks for.
This personal tension, bordering on the hatred by the time of their 1975 fight in the Philippines, was a promotional and ratings dream and in case you don’t know what happened in Madison Square Gardens 40 years ago, you can watch the final few rounds below, including something most fans never expected in round 15.
Boxing experts can endlessly argue whether this 40 year old fight is the most famous of them all and there are countless heavily debated lists of the greatest bouts and the greatest fighters. What can’t be argued is that for a multitude of reasons, Muhammad Ali is undoubtedly the most famous boxer of them all. Like so many others, I’ve been inspired and transfixed by Ali and here is a paragraph and link from a previous blog I wrote about him: