Ali-Frazier I, unconventional thinking

By Tom Doneldson
Updated: April 11, 2010

NEW YORK, When reviewing the first Frazier-Ali fight, the conventional wisdom has always been that Ali would have beaten Frazier if he’s never been forced to sit out three years due to his fight with United States government.

The reason for the conventional wisdom is that a three year lay-off saw an erosion of the fast quick Ali to a more slower fighter without his sharp accuracy.

There are logical reasons for the conventional wisdom.

Ali was a fighter who depended upon timing and his last three fights before he was banned from boxing were nothing more than classics.

He destroyed slugger Cleveland Williams in three rounds with one of boxing greatest exhibition, then he humiliated Ernie Terrell in what Sports Illustrated writer Tex Maule wrote, “a wonderful demonstration of boxing skills and a barbarous display of cruelty” and a classic boxing demolition of Zora Folley.

Ali was at his best against these three men and for many boxing historians, they remembered the Ali who looked unbeatable and fast.

At 25, Ali had filled out his body and no heavyweight was faster.

Ali did not look like the Ali of old so conventional wisdom appeared to hold true.

There is another case, namely, Joe Frazier could have beaten a younger Ali.

When Ali faced Frazier in their first fight, he was just 28 years old and had two tough fights against contenders.

Yes, Ali looked good against Terrell, Williams and Foley but Williams and Foley were past their prime with only Terrell in his prime as a fighter.

Terrell was good fighter, tall and lanky but he was not an all time great.

In his comeback, Ali fought Jerry Quarry and the rugged Argentina Oscar Bonavena for his first two fights before he fought Frazier.

Quarry was still in his prime and Bonavena had fought 27 rounds against Joe Frazier and despite losing two close decisions, he did manage to knock the great Frazier down.

The Frazier that Ali fought was a swarming slugger at his peak and at his best.

Frazier was a great fighter in his own right and one reason that Ali did not look like the Ali of old during Ali-Frazier I was because the fighter in the ring with him forced him to fight a more pitch battle.

What is often forgotten is that Ali fought a great fight in his own right against Frazier.

Frank Lotierzo, a boxing historian, told me once that on this night, only one heavyweight could have beaten Ali that night and he was in the ring with Ali.

Ali nearly stopped Frazier in the ninth round and won the tenth round as well as he appeared to turn the fight around,

Frazier nearly stopped Ali in the eleventh round and knocked Ali down in the fifteenth round with a left hook that appeared to have come from the state of South Carolina .

Ali survived fifteenth round against a killing machine at his peak.

Frazier was never the same fighter after this fight and Ali lost something as well even though he would regain the championship three years later against George Foreman.

Conventional wisdom needs to be challenged in the case of Ali-Frazier I for the following reasons.

The first is that swarming sluggers gave Ali trouble.

Doug Jones , a small light heavyweight gave Ali trouble early in Ali career.

British Henry Cooper, a fierce left hooker, nearly ended Ali chance to fight Liston with a left hook that sent Ali into another world before the bell ring ended the fourth round. Ali came back to win the fight in the next round but not before Anglo Dundee delayed the round when he “noticed a slit opening” in Ali’s glove and obtained new gloves for Ali.

Ali had easier time fighting bigger slugger like Sonny Liston and George Foreman but yet Frazier style gave him trouble over 41 rounds.

The Ali-Frazier trilogy featured three of the heavyweight division most brutal fights that shorten both men careers.

The Frazier that defeated Jimmy Ellis and Jerry Quarry would have given 1967 Ali trouble. He may not have beaten the Ali that destroyed Cleveland Williams but he would have pressured him the whole fight and the young Ali would have found that dancing around Frazier for fifteen rounds a challenge to say the least.

Sugar Ray Leonard had only one fight in five years before facing and upsetting Marvin Hagler.

Leonard was two years older than Ali was when he faced Hagler.

Of course, boxing historians will point out that Jack Dempsey three year layoff hurt him in his first fight against Gene Tunney but Tunney took a year off before their second bout whereas Dempsey had one fight with Jack Sharkey.

Tunney still won their second bout easily, long count in the seventh round not withstanding.

Conventional wisdom treated Ali as if he was over the hill against Joe Frazier but in reality he was 28 years old and at or close to his peak.

Ali-Frazier I featured two undefeated fighters at their peak in a special event that transcended the sport. Before that fight, Ali fought two top contenders and stopped them.

What conventional wisdom fails to take in consideration, Joe Frazier was an all time great in his own right.