May 7, 2021

Joe Frazier vs Muhammad Ali: The Fight of the Century from the cheap seats

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Jack Hirsch was a teenager when he managed to get a ticket in the cheap seats to watch The Fight of the Century. 50 years on, it remains the most treasured boxing memory of his life

IT seems unfair that neither Muhammad Ali or Joe Frazier is still around for the 50th anniversary of their Fight of the Century that took place on March 8, 1971. Had they Ali would be 79, Frazier 77. Of the 20,455 who were in attendance at Madison Square Garden, odds are that only a small percentage are still around. I am one of them having sat up in the rafters in the very last row, Ali’s back to me as he was felled by that Frazier left hook in the final round.

 It was pure luck which allowed me to attend as I would learn many years later when I became close friends with Tommy Kenville who worked at MSG’s publicity department at the time and was one of the people entrusted with dispersing tickets to the public.

It is a minor myth that all tickets were gone a few hours after going on sale. In those days much of the ticket requests were done through the mail, the first batch of arriving envelopes being given priority. Tickets were scaled from $20-150, a mere pittance in today’s market but high priced for the time. My request for a $20 ticket in the balcony was mailed a couple of days after they had gone on sale. According to Kenville I was able to get my ticket to the hottest event in the history of mankind only because the vast majority of requests were for multiple seats. Once those were filled MSG had only a few single seats scattered throughout the arena that they dispersed only to those who had requested just one such as myself.

I was a high school senior at the time, but my youth did not prohibit me from realizing it would be an event that would be talked about for the rest of my life. The desire to be at MSG was so great that I never did tell anyone I had a ticket to attend for fear that it would motivate a potential burglar to break into my home and steal my cherished ducat.

As the fight drew near the suspense was unbearable. The symbolic nature of what the fight represented far exceeded that of a sporting event. The players (Ali and Frazier) could not have been more opposite not only in ring styles but in personalities as well. It would be the first time in boxing history where two unbeaten heavyweight champions would square off (Frazier 26-0 (23), Ali 31-0 (25). But more than just deciding an undisputed champion it would also pit warring factions in society against the other. The divisions in America ran deep much as they do today.

Too young yet to drive, I took a bus to the subway from my home in Brooklyn to MSG, arriving very early in the evening before the expected bedlam would set in around the arena. If by some chance a stranger was to engage me in conversation about the fight I would not dare let on that I had a ticket to the event. I was an amateur boxer at the time, capable of defending myself but who knew what measures a mugger might go trying to rob me of it? As I approached the Garden I recall seeing policemen on horses circling the arena even though it was still very early in the night. I did make it a point to find the eccentric Malcolm Flash Gordon who sold boxing programs outside of MSG before all of their shows, and picked one up. Then inside of MSG, I also purchased the official program as well. Flash’s went for 35 cents, the one inside of the Garden cost $1.50, which today can fetch $400 from a memorabilia collector. I still have those programs. I also had a nice badge of Ali -Frazier commemorating the fight that was in my possession for 40 years. I was honored to personally hand it over to Frazier before he passed away.

 Potential muggers were an issue at least in my mind the closer I got to MSG. My ticket was securely placed inside my zippered sweater under my overcoat as I briskly walked to the entrance of the arena, relieved once I was inside.

Taking the escalator to the balcony I engaged in a brief conversation with a man who said he was offered $250 for his $20 seat. The record breaking prices seemed exorbitant but could have been easily surpassed had MSG scaled the house higher which in the aftermath they wished they had. Ali and Frazier each would be given a flat guarantee of two and a half million dollars, record setting numbers at the time, but when potential projections of what the fight might gross were revealed at the press conference, Ali turned to his adversary and said, only half jokingly, “Frazier we’ve been taken.”

Sitting through the undercard was akin to arriving at Times Square early on New Year’s Eve waiting for the ball to drop. As the main event drew closer so did the intensity of the crowd. The undercard lacked quality, the best of the fights being Britain’s Danny McAlinden winning a unanimous six round decision over Rahman Ali. It was Ali’s first defeat in eight fights, a bad omen for his older brother.

Chances are that many of those inside MSG had never attended a live boxing event before. To them the fight itself was secondary, it was a can’t miss gala, allowing them to dress in their most outrageous attire. Celebrities were out in force wanting to be seen. Frank Sinatra snuck up to the ring apron right before the main event began, a camera in hand working as a photographer for Life Magazine. Burt Lancaster a major Hollywood star, worked as a commentator alongside Archie Moore and Don Dunphy for the closed circuit telecast.

Before the main event got underway ring announcer Johnnie Addie informed the crowd that he would be dispensing with the formal introductions where celebrities were introduced to the crowd, because as he put it “we have everyone here tonight.” Former WBA heavyweight champion Jimmy Ellis who had been stopped in four rounds by Frazier in a unification fight at MSG 13 months before had been called into the ring to take a bow earlier in the night. Ellis who was picking his stablemate and boyhood friend to stop Frazier inside of eight rounds, was dressed in a leopard outfit which drew a gasp from the crowd.

I did not know my seat would be in the last row until I arrived at it, but cherished the location. Subsequently over the years I would sit ringside for many big shows at MSG, but can vouch that the best place to view the atmosphere inside of the arena is at the top where I was located that evening. However, it provided a long distance view of the fight that was the ultimate eye test. At the time there were no overhead screens like there are today giving fans an alternate way to watch the fight if they had trouble seeing the action from their seat.

The build up to the fight had started years before from when Ali was unjustly stripped of the heavyweight title and had his license revoked for refusing induction into the United States military in the spring of 1967. During Ali’s time in exile, Frazier, an Olympic gold medalist as was Ali, moved his way up the ranks to where he was the best active heavyweight in Ali’s absence. But still, many regarded Ali as the true heavyweight champion, using that old axiom that titles can only be won and lost inside of the ring. But by the time they entered the ring Frazier’s claim to being the rightful titleholder was stronger, based in large part to Ali having announced his retirement the year before and even going so far as to offer his Ring Magazine belt to the winner of Joe’s fight with Ellis. Ali’s retirement no doubt was the result of fatigue caused by the constant licence rejections and being forced to remain in the United States until his draft case was resolved in the courts. Until that point, Ring Magazine, very much influential at the time, continued to recognize Ali as champion, but withdrew that support when he said he did not intend to box again.

Unless you are old enough to have been around at the time it is hard to comprehend just how despised Ali was in many quarters, how a large segment of the population felt threatened by him. First it was the bragging, fun as it was at times, but nevertheless went against the grain of the soft-spoken athletes in the Joe Louis mold whom we were conditioned to admire. Then it was the conversion to the Nation of Islam, a sect which at the time preached divisiveness with Ali as its chief spokesman. Ali’s taunting of Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell for continuing to call him Cassius Clay even after he’d changed his name was derided in many quarters, but it was his perceived lack of patriotism in failing to serve in the military during the Vietnam war that outraged the masses. But as time went by public sentiment against the war in Vietnam was growing. And with it so did support for Ali’s refusal to serve.

Frank Sinatra photographs the action. (Photo by Robert Riger/Getty Images)

Over the years a misconception has been perpetuated of Ali being a leading anti-war activist. In the minds of others that might have been the case, but the man himself was not political in the slightest. Ali’s refusal to serve was directly related to his own situation in which he claimed conscientious objector status based on religious grounds. Ultimately the Supreme Court in the United States overturned his prior conviction and he was set free shortly after his match with Frazier. The Vietnam war raged on for a couple of more years after that, but Ali was not at any of the public rallies to protest it.

The symbolic nature of the fight has been well documented, but what is largely forgotten were the potential repercussions that awaited Ali if he were to lose. His case had not yet been heard by the Supreme Court, but based on lower court rulings he could not have been too optimistic. Although the Frazier match should have been totally irrelevant in any court ruling, Ali in a sense was fighting for his freedom that night. If Ali were to defeat Frazier he would become so incredibly big, such a martyr, that public pressure on the United States government would have nearly guaranteed his freedom. However, if Ali were to be beaten badly by Frazier he might no longer wield the same power as before. That would make it easier for the US government to enforce his conviction which carried a sentence of five years in jail and a $10,000 fine. And had that happened the course of boxing history would certainly have been dramatically altered.

The atmosphere inside of MSG was electric. Spectators felt like extras in a movie. We were all a part of it, however individually insignificant we were.  All eyes were on MSG that night, making it an accomplishment just to be in the building. What millions of people watching and listening to reports around the world would have given to trade places with us.

None of the celebrities, the beautiful people as they were referred to back then, were seated nearly as far away as I, but such was the demand for ringside seats that a good many could not be accommodated, being placed closer to the middle of the arena than they were to the ring itself. Spectators who were ringside spent more time scanning the crowd than they did observing the undercard matches, interested in which famous person would enter the arena next. It was a dress to impress night. As one fashion designer so eloquently put it, there was tons and tons of attitude.

I was seated next to an African American man who had brought his gal to the fight. Going strictly from long distance memory I would venture to guess he was about 15 years older than me. I never did ask his name or anything else about him, but would occasionally question him about how he thought the fight was unfolding. He was polite, but now that I think of how short his responses were I can safely say I was intruding on his space if not being an outright annoying kid.

The rivalry had gently started in Tokyo in the summer of 1964, when Frazier won an Olympic gold medal and signed with a group called Cloverly, a bunch of Philadelphia based businessmen who would finance his career much as a Louisville group had done for Ali. When Ali was forced into exile in 1967, Frazier was being touted as a future opponent but was still at least a year away. But Ali’s dominance in the heavyweight division was such that it was not until Smokin’ Joe stopped Buster Mathis on March 4, 1968 at MSG that the roots of a rivalry were born. Until that point Frazier was more prospect than contender, but the victory over Mathis made him heavyweight champion in New York, a few other States, and in a couple of foreign countries. Not a large geographical patch worldwide, but enough to place him in Ali’s domain. Still, it was not until Frazier stopped WBA champion Jimmy Ellis on February 16, 1970 also at MSG, was he able to get official recognition in all quarters as world champion. But a tainted champion he was according to Ali who unmercifully taunted Frazier in the media every day mocking his ring style, saying that Joe was slow and easy to hit, tailor made for him. That upset Frazier, but Ali’s personal insults made him rage. Ali wanted to get his licence back, regain his title, and start reaping the financial benefits of being heavyweight champion again. It is doubtful if he ever really disliked Frazier at any point, but the opposite certainly was not true. To Frazier it had become deeply personal and to a large segment of the public it had become so as well.

Fight of the Century
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Inside MSG that night I recall the specific divide in the crowds loyalty. Sides were drawn for one or the other, but the atmosphere inside the arena never threatened to get volatile. On the contrary, the mood was celebratory throughout much of the evening most I am sure grateful to just be there.

The only undercard match where I can pretty much recall was McAlinden vs Ali. McAlinden pressed forward all fight while Ali jabbed and moved minus the grace of his big brother. The British heavyweight was too physically strong, driving Ali into the ropes on several occasions, but never having him in trouble. It was close, but Ali’s safety first tactics left no doubt the decision was a fair one.

I remember the crowd roaring with delight during McAlinden’s short attacking bursts. Later it was reported that Rahman was upset his brother did not observe his fight as he had customarily done all the others, but the mere sight of Muhammad at ringside before his own match would have created bedlam at MSG, one security would have had a hard time controlling. The weigh in had been held earlier in the day inside MSG. The crowd outside had swelled to numbers that were out of control, convincing Ali and his entourage to stay in the arena until fight time. Muhammad was given quarters where he could relax and according to Kenville the entourage rang up quite a food bill that MSG had to pay for.

It is rare where a young person who has not legally reached adult age understands they are witnessing an event that will impact them for a lifetime. I knew that as I sat inside MSG that evening. They say the older you are the faster time goes by. Perhaps, but this much I can vouch for, that most of my teenage years were spent waiting for an Ali-Frazier fight that for a variety of reasons I never thought would materialize. The only other fight that remotely compared to it would later be Floyd Mayweather’s against Manny Pacquiao which finally happened after years of waiting. However, don’t think for a moment that the anticipation and historical impact of that match even touches the surface of the Fight of the Century. In boxing history only two other matches can be classified alongside Ali-Frazier I as having transcended boxing, those being the Jim Jeffries-Jack Johnson encounter in 1910 in Reno, Nevada, and the rematch between Joe Louis-Max Schmeling at New York’s Yankee Stadium in 1938.

It is doubtful there has ever been a more anticipated moment in world history as there was when Ali and Frazier came down the aisle and into the ring. And yes, that includes man first stepping on the moon. The noise level was deafening, the tension thick. Frazier and Ali had signed contracts to box, but after waiting so long the full realization that it would actually happen did not hit home until they were actually in the ring. These two men who were polar opposites who were said to divide people, actually were bringing them together. The world stopped and everyone either watched the fight or was getting updates as it unfolded.

THE FIGHT

When you cut through all the other factors which contributed to the enormity of the event when all was said and done it was a fight. Although the match would give us clarity of who the real heavyweight champion was, titles were secondary to the two men fighting for it. On this night at least they were bigger than the sport they were representing, much bigger.

The odds makers favored Frazier 7-5, based in large part on Ali’s three year plus exile. The mentality at the time was much different than today. Boxer’s approaching 30 were thought to be entering a point in their career where age was starting to become a factor. And in Ali’s case his fight with Oscar Bonavena at MSG three months prior brought that to light. Although Ali had become the first to stop the Argentinian strong man, dropping him three times in the 15th round to force the referee’s intervention he had looked vulnerable in the process, struggling and getting hit more than at any other time in his career. This was in sharp contrast to Ali’s comeback fight in Atlanta, three months before when he jabbed, moved and looked like his old self in cutting Jerry Quarry badly in his third round stoppage win. Had Ali repeated that elite performance against Bonavena he probably would have entered the ring even money or maybe a slight favorite to defeat Frazier who was in peak form. Of course, there were varying opinions as to what the outcome would be. The general consensus was that Ali would race to an early lead dancing around the ring but would only be able to hold Frazier off for so long before the Philadelphian’s relentless pressure would grind him into a late rounds stoppage defeat. Ali’s legs were thought to be not what they had once been. Of course, today heavyweights can fight well into their late 30s without any noticeable traces of diminished skills, but 50 years ago it was considered an aberration for any who could do that.

Finally they came down the aisle, first Ali and then Frazier. The introductory song that accompanies ring entrances had not yet been born. As they went through their paces in the ring waiting to be introduced, Ali up on his toes brushed against Frazier which drew a collective gasp from the crowd. Funny as it sounds, I leaned forward in my seat to catch a better view as if a few extra inches from the top of the building would have made a difference. Everyone was captivated. After years of waiting for a fight nobody could be sure would ever happen, here they were about to box. But reality was mixed with a feeling of disbelief, as is this really happening? You had to have lived through the Ali-Frazier machinations as they unfolded over a half century ago to fully understand the real life fantasy as it unfolded. The build up was such that people were fanatical about the fight, having vociferously argued about it long before it had been signed.

Despite the massive security outside MSG, the arena itself felt relatively safe. The majority of the crowd may have liked boxing, but were not fight fans in the traditional sense. But for those of us who were hard core fight fans this was the ultimate matchup, two unbeaten heavyweight champions arguably at the peak of their career. Two all time greats. Behind Ali’s facade he might not have been as drastically different from Frazier outside of the ring as it appeared, but inside it the two could not have been more opposite. It would be the ultimate boxer vs slugger matchup.

I was rooting for Ali that night hoping he could shed the rust he had shown in the Bonavena fight and be back to his old form of sticking and moving, staying on his toes for the full 15 rounds. But there was also a strong school of thought that even if that version of Ali resurfaced it might not be enough to hold off the freight train that was Smokin’ Joe.

Before the fight Ali assured us it would be no contest, telling us it would be like a good amateur against a top flight professional. That he would probably play with Frazier for a few rounds before knocking him out. That the ease with which he won would be so apparent that no one would want to see a rematch. Ali added slightly to the suspense by offering to show a handwritten note in his dressing room right before the fight predicting the round (six) he would dispose of Frazier. The histrionics continued into the match, with Ali vigorously shaking his head to the crowd that Frazier’s left hooks had no effect, waving contemptuously at Joe at the bell after some of the rounds, cuffing him with soft taps to the head while on the ropes trying to give the impression that he was just playing around such was the ease with which he could handle his opponent. Ali was doing all he could to break Frazier mentally, even calling upon spiritual forces to get his point across. Waiting for the bell to begin round eight Ali stood up and tapped his heart to acknowledge the crowd that was chanting his name, letting Frazier know he was getting strength from their support.

Frazier for his part was out to humiliate Ali as well. In the fifth round he dropped his hands, smiled and dared Ali to hit him. Taking great pleasure in making him miss. But unlike Ali who thrived on such antics, Frazier was reprimanded by his trainer Yank Durham at the end of the round to concentrate on the business at hand. Yet he would still react to Ali from time to time.

Fight of the Century

Ali loved shocking the world against supposedly invincible opponents like he had done earlier in winning the title from Sonny Liston and would do later on against George Foreman. But while everyone was amused at how easily Ali bragged he would defeat Frazier even those backing him braced for a hard fight. But at the end of the second round I can recall thinking maybe Ali was right after all, that he might dominate as promised. Ali’s class showed, while Frazier who was a slow starter had yet to get untracked.

It has been inaccurately reported throughout the years that Ali put a beating on Frazier for the first three rounds. Perhaps two, but certainly not in the third. That round was where Frazier established himself, getting inside and forcing Ali to use the ropes to pace himself for the long haul.

What is largely forgotten is that The Fight of the Century is where Ali introduced us to the Rope a Dope, not in Zaire where he regained the throne from Foreman. The difference was it worked against one man, but not the other. It was considered a gimme that Ali could not survive Frazier’s onslaught unless he was able to move for the full 15 rounds. Yet here he was catching breathers on the ropes and in corners, conserving energy and trying to get Frazier to punch himself out. Ali would make faces and wave Frazier in, but his antics were not winning rounds let alone the crowd. He was booed throughout round eight, and a chant of “Joe, Joe, Joe” engulfed the arena. But Ali rallied furiously with a series of hard left hooks to close out the ninth that had Frazier going back for one of the few times in the fight and followed up with a good 10th round as well. But there were still five long rounds to go and Frazier was not slowing up.

To me at least Frazier seemed to be ahead, but what was apparent is that neither man had seized control of the fight. That changed in the 11th round when the worst fears of us Ali fans were starting to be realized. Early in the round Ali went down near a corner. He quickly lost his footing much the way someone would on a slippery surface. Referee Arthur Mercante ruled it a slip which it certainly looked to be at the time. However subsequent replay reviews cast some doubt on that. Frazier had fired a left hook that might have contributed to Ali’s fall. Being that Ali never slipped at any other juncture it is fair to surmise that slippery canvas conditions had nothing to do with his going down. With that said the replay was not conclusive enough to question Mercante’s call. But you have to wonder whether the punch hurt Ali when you consider what transpired soon after.

Ali was play-acting in a corner, but clearly under duress when a left hook from Frazier hurt him, then another had him awkwardly reeling around the ring. Ali was badly hurt, but the way he stumbled around had some not convinced. Among those was Mercante who told me many years later he felt Ali had duped everyone in that round. Few at MSG shared that opinion. For us Ali fans at MSG, it was like the start of a funeral procession. The beginning of the end so to speak. Some thought that Frazier could have ended it in the 11th had he not been conned by Ali’s antics. “I was always taught that a man is most dangerous when he’s hurt,” said Frazier, explaining why he did not throw caution to the wind. But to be fair, Joe could not have done much more than he did. He tried to follow up, but Ali had the guile to keep away.

There was doubt at MSG that Ali would make it through the 12th, but I was optimistic he could based on his past history of resiliency when he came off the canvas to stop both Sonny Banks and Henry Cooper the following rounds after getting dropped. Ali fights well when hurt, I remember thinking. But the 12th was not a good round for Ali who was in survival mode holding out his left hand like a pole and placing it on the top of Frazier’s head to keep him at a distance.

Ali punched back a little more in the 13th, but not enough to win the round having spent most of it on the ropes and in corners. By now it was apparent that the fight was Frazier’s. But Ali came back magnificently, getting back up on his toes to win the 14th. I remember feeling a surge of excitement. Although Frazier had the decision locked up as far as I was concerned, a strong 15th round by Ali would allow him to save face in defeat, and maybe even be able to claim he was hard done by the judges when the inevitable decision went against him.

The everlasting image of The Fight of the Century has always been of Ali being felled by a left hook 21 seconds into the 15th round. Frazier leaping up and landing the flush hook that deposited Ali on his back, feet in the air has been replayed over and over. It was the highlight of Frazier’s career. It was like a shot out of a cannon I thought as Ali went down. For whatever reason, I did not feel Ali was in grave danger of being stopped, but any glimmer of hope that he could get the decision disappeared when he was dropped. As the fight neared the end I distinctly recall thinking that although it was a good performance by Frazier he was starting to decline slightly and would be there for the taking against a young George Foreman. One of my better predictions as it turned out. Joe put so much into defeating his great rival that he was never quite the same indomitable force again. But Frazier did admit to me in private that even had he maintained the form that defeated Ali, it would not have mattered against Foreman because of their respective styles.

Even the most hated of rivals can acknowledge one another in an act of respect once they have gone through such a brutal contest, one which bonds them forever. But Frazier was having none of that. His resentment toward Ali was so deep that he waved his hand angrily in Ali’s face and shouted at him when the bell rang ending the fight.

As both men headed to their corners, two thoughts came to my mind in rapid succession. The first was what would have happened had Ali been active in his career all along. I concluded that he would have not been forced to spend those prolonged periods on the ropes and as a result would have outpointed Frazier in the 8-6-1 to 9-6 range. The other thought was what now becomes of Ali? His draft status was still up in the air and the defeat to Frazier had been so comprehensive (at least in my view at the time), that I wondered would he be able to wield the same power outside of the ring as he had before?

It was obvious that Frazier had won the fight as we waited for the decision to be announced. In those days they announced scorecards one by one, not in the dramatic fashion we have today that is designed to add to the suspense. Referee Arthur Mercante’s 8-6-1 score drew a round of boos before Addie announced it was for Frazier. Frazier supporters objected over the closeness of that score. Judge Artie Aidala had it 9-6 for Frazier, making his victory official. The loudest roar was saved for judge Bill Recht’s scorecard which had Frazier winning 11-4, making it an empathetic triumph.

From my seat in the boondocks my scorecard had it 10-4-1, giving Ali the first two rounds, calling the fifth even and giving him the 10th and 14th. Upon reviewing the tape of the fight several times over I would change only two of the rounds, the fifth which I had even, but would now give to Ali based on Frazier’s moments of inactivity when he taunted Ali. I would also switch the ninth to Ali that was scored for him by all three judges’. Those late left hooks as the round closed were more effective than appeared to me at the time. My revised scoring would make it 9-6 Frazier.

What no one talks of is that had the match been scored on a points instead of a rounds basis than Frazier’s margin would have been quite decisive. In today’s scoring the 11th and 15th rounds both probably would have gone to him by an 10-8, meaning that his triumph on the scorecards would have been by four, five, and nine points respectively.

I can’t speak for those who watched the fight in the theatres around the world, but I can firmly vouch that inside of MSG the pro Ali faction had no quarrel with the decision. There was no booing or discontent from Ali’s fans. They left the arena quietly in acceptance that Frazier was the better man at least at that point in their career. It was only later that some would dispute the validity of the verdict. This is in part due to the photos that emerged of Frazier’s battered face which looked a lot worse than Ali’s who only had a swollen jaw. Frazier was utterly exhausted from his superhuman effort that caused his blood pressure to soar, resulting in him being hospitalized for over a week as rumors spread he was near death.

Leaving MSG was nearly anticlimactic, the threat of violence not the same as when we had entered. 1971 was somewhat different from today. There was no social media, computers, cable TV, and cell phones that would spotlight protesters as it does now. Normally when a main event ends the crowd files out anxious to get home, but on this night more people than normal hung around the ringside area. There were no interviews in the ring with the fighters afterward, but Ali and Frazier did not leave immediately. I have the distinct recollection of Frazier wandering over to Ali’s corner right before he left the ring and saying something. “We don’t do no crawling,” Frazier was reported to have said. This in reference to Ali having previously boasted that he would get on his hands and knees and crawl over to Frazier and tell him he was the greatest if Joe won.

The 15th round knockdown of Ali has always been the defining moment of the fight played over and over again. There has not been a more famous single knockdown in boxing history. It punctuated Frazier’s triumph even though he did not need it to win. It gave us an image of Joe having closed the deal that we would not have had if he’d floored Ali at an earlier junction instead.

Propaganda is the most powerful tool in distorting reality and that is what occurred in the days, weeks, and months following the fight. In the immediate aftermath Ali sportingly accepted his defeat saying, “A lot of great fighters get whupped.” But soon changed his tune, electing to hang his hat on the minority opinions of those such as the New York Post’s Larry Merchant whose column in the New York Post the next day had him winning 9-6. There were others who felt that it had been a close fight although virtually every objective observer had Frazier winning. Still, Ali complained non-stop that Frazier did not beat him, that the judges’ did. His complaints had no foundation but being the persuasive individual he was Ali got many of his fans to jump on board. It took years but Ali ultimately admitted he was beaten fairly. In retirement I recall him going on a New York radio show that took calls from listeners. One of the callers asked Ali point blank did he honestly think he beat Frazier in their first fight. Ali admitted he didn’t. He reiterated that later on when a replay of the fight was shown on television.

The strong impression left in the aftermath was that although Frazier had connected with the harder and more damaging blows throughout, Ali had landed more. It would be many years later where this would be disproved when CompuBox revisited the fight and concluded that statistically Frazier outpunched Ali in both quality and quantity.

It is only fitting that the 50th anniversary is occurring on a Monday, the night of the week that the fight was held. I plan to celebrate one way or the other as I do on that date every year. But this one will be special. Much has happened since then. The world has changed for both better and worse, but what has remained constant is the enduring memory of the night.

I had my picture taken one time with Ali, but never engaged him in conversation. On the contrary I had many interactions with Frazier from presenting him an award, to various interviews, and helping arrange a couple of public appearances for him as well. What became apparent to me during those interactions was that Frazier was still fighting the fight. He had not moved on as Ali ultimately did. I have gotten a number of personal honors over the years, been in high profile positions that have had me dealing with the biggest names in the sport, but nothing remotely has come close to having been in attendance that March 8, 1971 night at MSG. There has never been anything like it and there will never be again.

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