The Fight of the Century, A Half-Century On

Some dates are woven into your consciousness, and for me, March 8 is one of those dates. It has nothing to do with holidays, birthdays, personal landmarks – any of that. It has to do with two men I’ve never met, pounding each other into swollen pulps for the benefit of their bank accounts, the bank accounts of many others, and the entertainment of millions of strangers.

I didn’t even see it happen when it actually happened. I was too young, and didn’t have the money, anyway. But like millions of others, I got caught up in the current of hype that turned March 8 into a mythical date for sports fans of a certain generation.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of what I still consider to be the single biggest U.S. sporting event of my lifetime: the first Ali-Frazier fight, which took place on March 8, 1971, at New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

The fight featured two undefeated heavyweight boxing champs – Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier – and paved the way for all the big-bucks, over-the-top sporting extravaganzas to come. It transcended sports in ways few other sporting events have, and still resonates today in the battle lines it drew both culturally and politically.

About the only U.S. sporting event that might have had a bigger cultural impact was the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, billed as the “Battle of the Sexes.” But that was an exhibition between a top-ranked women’s player and a long-retired, 55-year-old men’s player. As important as that match was in the cause of women’s rights, nothing official was at stake – unless you count Riggs’ title as the World’s Greatest Hustler, which he retained even after King steamrolled him in straight sets.

It’s almost impossible for a sporting event to have that kind of impact today. When everything everywhere is hyped to death hourly on the internet, everything everywhere becomes smaller and smaller and smaller.

But back to Frazier-Ali….

Joe Frazier was the official Heavyweight Champion of the World at the time, but only because Muhammad Ali’s title had been stripped after he refused to serve in the Vietnam War, citing his status as a conscientious objector based on his religious beliefs. Ali didn’t see much percentage in risking his life to fight for a country that oppressed his own people.

Those of us who were alive and aware at the time will no doubt remember the massive buildup to the fight. It was billed as the Fight of the Century, and for once, that billing was not hyperbole.

Ali and Frazier seemed to be everywhere in the months leading up to the bout: on TV talk shows, on magazine covers, in television ads, in every sports section of every newspaper around the world. It became as much a cultural event as a sporting event – and because of the times, a political event as well.

On the sporting side, Ali and Frazier were both fabulous fighters with two distinctive styles.

Ali was a big man – 6 foot 3, 225 pounds – but he was also remarkably quick and agile. He was a master tactician who kept on the move, going side to side and using the whole ring, making his opponent track him down. He was fast and smart and almost impossible to corner or hit. If his opponent did get close enough, Ali would unleash a series of brutal combinations in rapid-fire succession. His jab was flawless, and his right hand carried immense power.

Ali’s famous line was, “I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” And respect where it’s due: The man could float like a butterfly, and sting like a bee.

Frazier, three inches shorter, was the stalker, bobbing and weaving his way inside and sending furious hooks to the body and jaw. His mission was to corner his opponent and make him slug it out, mano a mano. Smokin’ Joe was relentless, always moving forward, from the opening bell to the end.

From a pure box office standpoint, the first Ali-Frazier fight ventured where no sporting event had gone before. Ringside seats were $150 – or equivalent to about $1,000 today – and each fighter was guaranteed $2.5 million, an astronomical figure at the time (and still a pretty stout payday now). The Garden was packed with a sellout crowd of 20,455 that produced gate receipts of $1.5 million. If you didn’t have a ticket to the Garden, your only option was to buy a ticket to see the closed-circuit broadcast in theatres or arenas.

The hype was intensified by two equally distinct personalities. Ali and Frazier had exactly two things in common: They were both black men, and they were both from the American South – Ali a native of Louisville, Kentucky, and Frazier a native of Beaufort, South Carolina. But that’s where the similarities ended.

Ali was brash and outspoken, bursting with confidence and charm, a born entertainer blessed with a sharp wit and movie-star good looks. He boasted that he was the greatest of all time, and in his prime, he was. Ali called himself pretty, and he was right about that, too. He was a classic ‘60’s anti-hero, challenging the establishment and raging against the white power structure, both as a public figure and a follower of the Nation of Islam.

For a period of 10 to 20 years, Ali was probably the most famous human being on the planet. He turned bragging into an art form, and nobody has come close since. He could mix it up with street brawlers in the ring and intellectuals in public forums. Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more magnetic personality.

Frazier was low-key, soft spoken, not always comfortable in the spotlight, and certainly no match for Ali in the public arena. Whereas Ali’s star shown well beyond the sports realm, Frazier was mainly known as a heavyweight boxer.

Both men took a stab at singing. Ali had zero talent in this area; Smokin’ Joe was not half bad.

Ali was light skinned and clean shaven. Frazier was darker and favored long sideburns and a Fu Manchu. Their distinct physical characteristics would later play an ironic role in how the two men were perceived. Which brings us to the political aspect of the fight……

First, some background. When Ali was ostracized from boxing because of his refusal to serve in Vietnam, Frazier was one of his biggest advocates. He loaned Ali money during his suspension, and testified to Congress on Ali’s behalf. He even petitioned President Richard Nixon to have Ali reinstated. Frazier’s support for Ali smoothed Ali’s return to boxing in innumerable ways.

But after the fight was announced, these two men were suddenly painted into very different corners of the political landscape. Ali was portrayed as the radical Black Champion, a hero to the African diaspora worldwide, a loud and proud advocate for black power.

Almost by default, Frazier got portrayed as the White Champion – despite his skin color. He became the symbol of a “Silent Majority” that pushed back against the activism of the 1960s, including the urban unrest that pitted black citizens against white police authority (sound familiar?).

It was all bullshit, of course. But once the narrative took hold, it was hard to stop.

And honestly, Ali fed into it with his taunting of Frazier, which could be downright cruel at times. He called Frazier “ugly” and a “gorilla.” He referred to Frazier as an “Uncle Tom” who “works for the enemy.” That’s about the worst thing you could say about a black man, and Frazier never forgave him for it.

In the eyes of many black Americans, Frazier became a symbol of black subservience. The fact that he was darker than Ali – and that there was nothing at all subservient about him – was beside the point. Many blacks and whites adopted this narrative, and it stuck.

Ali was a great man, but this was one time when he failed miserably as a human being. Even if he was just trying to build up hype for the fight, he crossed the line by lobbing such foul invective at a man who stood in his corner when the boxing establishment treated him as a pariah.

None of this really explains why the fight still sticks in my mind after all these years. I didn’t even see the fight when it happened. I didn’t see it until much later, when it was rebroadcast on “Wild World of Sports” or something. But there’s another, deeper reason it still resonates with me, and that has to do with my personal experience when the fight took place.

During the 1970-71 school year, my hometown of Charlotte earned national headlines by becoming the first city to impose forced busing to achieve more racial balance at schools. I was in the 6th grade at the time. Black students were bused across town to predominately white schools, and white students were bused across town to predominately black schools. It was a landmark move, based on a landmark legal case that would eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

So, I was bused from my lily white neighborhood in south Charlotte to Bruns Avenue Elementary School, located in the mostly black west side of town. Some parents in our neighborhood refused to send their kids across town, and started a small private school, a sort of forerunner to the charter schools to come.

But my parents wanted me to go to Bruns Avenue. I will always give them respect for that, because it turned out to be one of the most meaningful experiences of my young life, opening my eyes to a whole other world I didn’t know existed.

That world included a lot of black kids, whom I had never mixed with before. And they had never mixed with so many white kids before. I won’t say there weren’t challenges. I got into regular fistfights with one black kid named Stanley, but it had nothing to do with race, because we were both too young and clueless to take race into account. We were just hotheads who would start swinging as soon as one got on the other’s nerves. Then we’d shake hands and make up. But when we got called into the principal’s office, a black man named Mr. White, I’m sure it was hard for him to ignore the racial aspect. I can’t imagine what his life was like that year.

One thing I learned at Bruns Avenue was this: My black classmates, almost to a person, idolized Muhammad Ali. He was a hero of the highest order, right up there with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Aretha Franklin.

I don’t remember a single one of my black classmates pulling for Joe Frazier. I don’t remember a single one of my white classmates pulling for Muhammad Ali. I made a $5 bet with a black classmate that Frazier would win. It was the first time I’d ever bet for real money, and I collected the next day…..

…..because Frazier won the fight on a decision, helped by a vicious left hook in the 15th round that sent Ali to the canvas. Ali got up, but that hook probably sealed the deal. Frazier retained his heavyweight title after 15 brutal rounds, and Ali suffered his first loss. Both men took a severe pounding. Frazier was probably more beat up than Ali. God knows how big a physical toll it took on them later in life. The fight has been lauded as one of the greatest heavyweight bouts ever.

Frazier and Ali would fight two more times over the next several years, with Ali winning both of those. The third and decisive bout took place in the Philippines, and was dubbed the “Thrilla in Manila.” It might have been the most physically demanding heavyweight bout ever.

Today, thanks to YouTube, we can see the first Frazier-Ali fight ourselves, right on our smartphones. It’s a weird way to watch a legendary boxing match, on a tiny screen on a little hunk of electronics.

Frazier and Ali are both dead now. There will come a time when that long-ago battle will be consigned to the dustbin of history, after those of us who were there to experience it fade into the sunset ourselves.

Ah, but there was a time, my young friends. There was a time when giants roamed the earth, and the whole world tuned in.

Ah, there was a time…..

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