Fight of the Century
Exactly 50 years ago tonight, roughly around 3:00 GMT, the first bell sounded for an event that’s gone down in the long annals of sporting history as one, if not the, greatest of all time. Certainly one that comfortably competes as the greatest of the twentieth century.
On Monday 8th March 1971 in Madison Square Garden, New York City for the first time in boxing history two undefeated champions contested the undisputed Heavyweight Championship of the World.
Muhammad Ali (aka Cassius Clay), the so called ‘Louisville Lip’ and soon to be a cultural icon, had only recently returned from three and half years of enforced exile due to his stance against US military involvement in Vietnam. Despite this inactivity he still held a flawless 31-0 (25 KO’s) record and to many was still regarded as the true lineal champion.
His challenge was to 1964 Olympic champion and recently Ring recognised champion Smokin’ Joe Frazier 26-0 (23 KO’s) from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The whole world was watching.
The Ring had only ten months earlier finally given up on Ali due to his inactivity and recognised Frazier as their champion by virtue of him beating Jimmy Ellis in a heavyweight elimination tournament.
Despite admittedly showing years of patience with Ali their position was concluded in their May 1970 edition by stating “Elimination of Clay will clear up a heavyweight muddle which hurt boxing throughout the world”. Looking back, how damning that was, and oh for the days of the 1970’s and only two world sanctioning bodies !
Both fighters had goaded each other in the lead up to the fight promoting a rightful claim to be called the Heavyweight Champion. Ali, more forceably and personal than his adversary, and Smokin’ Joe having secretly helped Ali financially whilst he was in exile, tranquil and serene. The history of the time is resplendent with images of Ali telephoning Joe in training camp and turning up at gym sessions to goad and disarm his opponent.
It was, the hype of all hype and grudge match of all grudge matches. Deep down Joe knew that until he beat Ali he would never be universally accepted as the champ.
What conspired was truly an event and fight for the ages.
On that famous early spring night each boxer had secured $2.5 million on entering the ring, a staggering and unheard of amount at the time for two prizefighters, and fought before a live crowd of close to 20,000 and worldwide audience on the basic technology of the time.
Anyone who was anyone was in the arena that night. Legendary tales of Frank Sinatra masquerading as a LIFE magazine photographer and Diana Ross being ejected from the press corp for not having a credential are examples of the draw of the event. To say it was the hottest ticket in town would be a gross understatement.
Around the world people tuned in however they could, from the early hour close circuit showings in cinemas in the UK, to the kinfolk huddled around flickering TV’s in townships of South Africa, and onto the Asian continent and the pampas of South America. This was the fight everyone had to see, or as a minimum, know the result of.
History would record that in a spectacular fight Smokin’ Joe would ‘smoke‘ all night, rocking Ali in the eleventh and dropping him with a devastating left hook in the 15th round to gain a unanimous 8-6-1, 9-6 and 11-4 rounds decision on the judges cards. With it, he would win the now undisputed Heavyweight Championship of the World.
Joe would go on to lose the title to George Foreman in Kingston, Jamaica by devastating second round KO in January 1973 and ultimately never regain it. He would meet Ali two more times. Once in ‘The Garden’ again in January 1974 with Ali exacting his revenge by unanimous decision, and then more famously, in the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ in September 1975, with Ali victorious again in a contest the winner would refer to as “The closest to death” he had come.
But, ‘The Fight’ witnessed in New York City in 1971 became the benchmark to which all Superfights are now judged and nothing has ever come close in terms of expectation and delivery. Tonight before your head hits the pillow spare a thought and prayer for two of the greatest fighters of all time who gave us such joy fifty years ago. God bless them both.