March 8, 1971

By Tom Donelson BASN Staff writer
Updated: March 8, 2011

IOWA, City, IOWA–March 8th, 1971, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and need I say more? This bout was more than a boxing match or even a sporting event; this was societal event that encompassed politics, race, war and even a touch of celebrity appearances. Anyone who was anyone showed up at Madison Square Garden.

We know the results of the fight as Joe Frazier defeated Ali in a brutal fifteen round fight that sent both men to the hospital. In one of the most brutal fight in one of boxing most brutal trilogy the first bout was historical. This trilogy shortened both men careers and as one pundit wrote after their third bout, every ounce of greatness was beaten out of both men.

Ali represented what we can call the new political left with his own opposition to serving in Vietnam and the ever question of race in America. Frazier proved to be the foil for Ali, the unwilling participant in a political debate he wanted nothing to be part of.

There were so many twists and turns but also many mythologies about this fight. The first mythology was that Ali was over the hill and rusty from three years off. There is no doubt that Ali forced exile from boxing due to his refusal to join the United States Army did not help his timing but there are two things often overlooked. Ali was not yet 29 and still physically in his prime, a fact so often ignored. The second fact ignored is that Ali already had two fights with top ten contenders, Oscar Bonavena and Jerry Quarry.

Ali dispatched Quarry quickly as his rapier quick punches opened up a gash over Quarry eyes that produced a river of blood; thus forcing a three round stoppage. Ali was never in trouble and rarely hit by Quarry over his nine minute of activities. Against Bonavena, Ali had difficulty against a very awkward fighter. Bonavena had already gone twenty seven rounds with Frazier, and even managed to knock Frazier down twice before losing both decisions.

Ali found himself in a tough match as Bonavena awkwardness bothered Ali the whole bout or until the fifteen round when an Ali barrage of quick punches sent Bonavena down three times.

The Ali that showed up against Frazier was fit and near his prime, if not at his prime against Frazier. Years ago, boxing writer and historian Frank Lotierzo told me, that if Ali had fought any other fighter that night other than Frazier, he would have won and won easily. On that night he faced a Joe Frazier at his peak and a Joe Frazier ready to fight after spending the previous months being pillared by Ali.

Joe Frazier played a role he did not seek as the defender of the establishment. Frazier supported Ali’s right to fight during his exile and even aided him financially but when Ali began the build up for the fight, Frazier found himself the butt of much criticism; some of it racial. For Frazier, who as one of Ali’s corner man noted was all raging black, played the role of an Uncle Tom.

Frazier was not activist and certainly there is no evidence to suggest that he was member of the establishment. He viewed himself only as a fighter and nothing more nor did he have any opposition to Ali’s own political activity. He never attacked Ali for his religious belief as Floyd Patterson did in 1965 but he fail to show Ali any reverence once Ali began his own attack on him. Frazier took much of what Ali said personally and began to view Ali with disdain, a feeling that would last long after both men retired from the sport. For Frazier, he viewed Ali as being hypocritical as he once observed, “I am the fighter with the all black corner.”

For Frazier, this was a personal as he wanted to show Ali who was the true champion. Over fifteen rounds, both men punished each and one of boxing greatest fight, both men preformed beyond what was seen before.

Often we view this fight through the prism of Ali but one can’t forget that without Frazier, there is no Ali as the greatest. Writer Tom Hauser observed, both men brought out the best in each other as fighters and the worst as humans. After the third fight in the trilogy, Ali realized that lines were crossed and tried to begin the healing process between the two warriors. It would take decades before any serious rapprochement occurred.

This fight would be forever remembered for as much happened outside the ring as inside the ring but it was event that was a rarity, a great fight between two great fighters undefeated and in their prime. Rarely do boxing events of this nature live up to expectation but this one did. And boxing history became richer because of it, or should I say, American history became richer because of it?