Fifty two years ago on 8/3/1971 ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali would meet in what would be their first of three epic clashes given the promotional nickname of ‘the fight of the century’ which had been used three times previously saw the two unbeaten champions finally settle the score on who was the actual worlds heavyweight champion. Frazier held the WBC and WBA titles which he had collected during Ali’s exile from boxing for his refusal to participate in the Vietnam war, the war nobody wanted. To many Ali was unpatriotic and ridiculed for his refusal, Frazier on the other hand was seen as an all American who spoke with his fists. The two men split opinions and both sides had scores of fans claiming their man as the legitimate champion.
Ali had never lost any of his titles inside the ring so to many it was he who still held the title of champion if not the holder of the belts. The occasion drew many celebrities with Frank Sinatra acting as photographer for Life magazine and artist LeRoy Nieman painted the two two men as they participated in battle. The fight went the full 15rds and did not in any way fail to deliver….from the first bell the two went hell for leather with Ali claiming the early rounds peppering Joe with that spear like jabs before Frazier started ‘smokin’ and unleashing shots to the body of Ali sent from the pits of hell. Round 15 and we saw that famous left hook of Frazier drop Ali who shot back up to his feet in refusal to stay down for those that were jeering him while down.
The touchpaper on this trilogy had been lit as Frazier claimed a UD victory handing Ali a first loss as a professional. There was no argument who the undisputed heavyweight world champion now was…his name was Joseph William Frazier better known as ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier. The first page of the story had been written yet the book of the tale between them has barely even begun…52 years ago they first met in the squared ring.
Ali said prior to the bout that if “Frazier whips him he would crawl across the ring on his hands and knees and tell him he is the greatest.” Ali never did tell Joe he was the greatest but he sure did earn the respect of Ali. And his monster left hook.
No doubt, a coming back Ali lost this fight. But Frazier who was fighting on the regular couldn’t KO the coming back Ali! And once Ali got back inshape he beat Frazier twice over even TKO”D him in the third fight. And beat alot of big stong guys that Frazier wouldn’t touch, like Ron Lyle, Ernie shavers, and big George Foreman destroyed Frazier but that was the greatness of Ali. The true texture of the story.
Some boxing pundists claimed Ali was in outstanding shape the night Frazier beat him soundly. You can make a case that he wasn’t as sharp as he had been in the 1960s which is fair. At the same time Joe Frazier was virtually unbeatable at this time in his career.
Frazier never regained this form again after winning the fight of the century. He was inactive for the next almost 2 years taking only 2 bouts vs easier opposition. Joe had lost his fire and focus and he paid the price vs Foreman losing his title.
It’s also fair to say Ali never beat the peak version of Frazier and vice versa. Even with some are of the believe that the 2nd fight was very controversial as Ali resorted to some cheap holding tactics to win a razor thin decision. The video shows Ali grabbed Frazier behind the head and pulled him in 113 times in 12 rounds but never was penalized.
Ali did win their last fight in dramatic fashion by standing and slugging it out with Joe. One of the greatest fight of all time. Ali showed tremendous heart and toughness to survive the punches Frazier landed that day. Ali called the closest thing to death afterwards. Legendary performance, but he didn’t actually knock Joe Frazier out. In 41 rounds of boxing Ali never put Joe on the canvas. He was hardpressed to even back him up or hurt him.
Eddie Futch Joe’s trainer correctly stopped the fight because Frazier’s vision was compromised.
One of the greatest fights will be celebrated for many many more years to come. I doubt we will ever see such a fiercely contested both inside and out of the ring rivalry again…beautifully brutal. 🥊
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