FIGHT OF THE CENTURY – Frazier vs Ali 1st – This Day March 8, 1971
- Joe Frazier 205½ lbs
- Muhammad Ali 215 lbs
- UD in round 15 of 15
- Location: Madison Square Garden, New York, New York, USA
- Referee: Arthur Mercante 8-6
- Judge: Artie Aidala 9-6
- Judge: Bill Recht 11-4
- Unofficial AP scorecard: 9-5-1 Frazier
- Unofficial UPI scorecard: 7-7-1 Draw
- Weights: Frazier 205.5 lbs (93 kg), Ali 215 lbs (97.5 kg)
- World Boxing Council Heavyweight Title (second defense by Frazier)
- World Boxing Association Heavyweight Title (second defense by Frazier)
Fight of the Century was the promotional nickname given to this first match between champion Joe Frazier (26-0, 23 KOs) and challenger Muhammad Ali (31-0, 26 KOs), held on March 8, 1971 at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Buildup and media coverage
Each man was guaranteed $2.5 million dollars, the largest single payday for any entertainer or athlete at the time. Tickets to the Garden would be made available to the general public by mail on a first come first served basis. Prices in the arena ranged from $20 for a balcony seat to $150 for ringside. Hundreds of other locations throughout the U.S. and Canada would screen the fight via closed circuit television to fans paying $5 to $15.
Interest in the event was incredible. Radio, television, and the print media were filled with stories discussing the upcoming fight. Few athletic events, be it World Series, Super Bowl or World Cup, had come even close to generating the type of excitement and attention that this prizefight was getting.
Fifty countries had purchased rights to the telecast. The fight was broadcast from ringside in 12 different languages. When the final tallies were added up, it was estimated that 300 million people around the globe had watched the fight. It was the largest audience ever for a television broadcast up to that time. More people had tuned into the fight than had watched the moon landing two years before. In the end, the fight grossed between 18 and 20 million dollars world-wide.
Importance and Predictions
The fight itself became something of a symbol of the country. Leading up to the fight, Ali (who had denounced the Vietnam War) became a symbol of the anti-establishment movement. Meanwhile, Frazier became a symbol of the conservative, pro-war movement. In his autobiography, Frazier acknowledged that while he got an exemption from serving in Vietnam because he had a wife and kids, he would have had no problem serving his country had he been drafted, as it had been so good to him.
Many boxing fans argued that Ali’s speed and ability would blind Frazier, while others thought Frazier’s superior punching power, combined with Ali’s long absence from the ring, would give the advantage to Frazier. On the night of the fight, there were riots in many United States cities, including Chicago, where a whole theater was almost torn apart by angry attendees after the picture went out during the 3rd round and the technical people were unable to fix it.
By the evening of the match, Madison Square Garden had a circus-like atmosphere, with scores of policemen to control the crowd, outrageously dressed fans, and countless celebrities, from Norman Mailer and Woody Allen to Frank Sinatra, who took photographs for Life magazine. Artist LeRoy Neiman painted Ali and Frazier as they fought. Burt Lancaster served as a color commentator for the closed ciruit broadcast. Even though Lancaster had never performed as a sports commentator before, he was hired by the fight’s promoter, Jerry Perenchio, who was also a friend of his. The other commentators were play-by-play announcer Don Dunphy and former light heavyweight champion Archie Moore.
The fight itself exceeded even its promotional hype. Ali dominated the first three rounds, peppering the shorter Frazier with rapier-like jabs that raised welts on the champion’s face. Frazier began to dominate in the 4th round, catching Ali with several of his famed left hooks and pinning him against the ropes to deliver tremendous body blows. The fight was about even until late in round 11, when Frazier caught Ali, backed into a corner, with a crushing left hook that almost floored Ali, sending him falling into the ropes. Ali managed to survive the round and fought well over the next three rounds. At the end of round 14, Frazier held a lead on the three scorecards. Early in round 15, Frazier landed a spectacular left hook that put Ali on his back (for only the third time in his career). Ali, his right jaw swollen grotesquely, got up from the blow quickly and managed to stay on his feet for the rest of the round despite several terrific blows from Frazier. A few minutes later, the judges made it official: Frazier had retained the title with a unanimous decision, dealing Ali his first professional loss.
Ali did show rust in the fight. He was visibly tired after the 6th round, and though he put together some flurries of punches after that round, he was unable to keep the pace he had set in the first third of the fight.
Ali and Frazier fought twice more, with Ali winning both encounters. The last of these was the 1975 Thrilla in Manila, which, like the first bout, won The Ring Fight of the Year award and many other honors. Some consider it even greater than the first fight.
The term “Fight of the Century” had been used three times before.
According to referee Arthur Mercante, the following conversation took place in the ring:
“You know, you’re in here with the God tonight” – Ali’s attempt to psyche out Frazier
“If you are God, you’re in the wrong place tonight” – Frazier’s reply