The well worn tag of The Fight of the Century has once again resurfaced. The 1971 Frazier vs. Ali fight was also dubbed The Fight of the Century.
In my lifetime, there has never been a sporting event, much less a fight, that was as hyped as 1971’s Joe Frazier vs. Muhammad Ali: The Fight of the Century. What makes this amazing is that it was all before ESPN, the internet, 24/7/365 sports talk radio, and the like. It seems like this fight had a longer build-up than the current Mayweather vs. Pacquiao, but I might be a bit hazy on that. The fight was featured on the cover of Time magazine. The bout was on a Monday night which is a major departure from the standard practices of today. It was in Madison Square Garden in New York City. This was also before the era of Pay-Per-View. In those days, what you had were closed circuit broadcasts around the country in theaters and small arenas. Usually, some major ruckus broke out at at least one of these venues and gunfire was not unheard of (meaning gunfire could be heard, duck!)
I was supposed to go to bed early because it was a school night. However, like the moon walk, this was a must event. I laid in my bed with the lights out and listened to the round-by-round updates as they came in on the radio. Yep, kids, it was pretty old school. No instant gratification. But you know what, those rounds go down fast and it was tremendously exciting to wait for each new report. You can get this same effect watching the crawl on ESPN Saturday night for the most recent iteration of The Fight of the Century, Mayweather vs. Pacquiao. If you can’t see the Pay-Per-View, this is a pretty exciting way to follow the fight. I prefer the ESPN crawl coverage and it seems like Dan Rafael, an ESPN boxing analyst, has scored these big fights round-by-round the past few years. I trust his scoring and expertise.
Anyway, back to 1971, as the fight wound down I could hear that Ali was in trouble. That was upsetting to me in my dark little bed because even though I liked Frazier, too, I wanted Ali to win. From the photos after the fight, I will always remember the red trunks with white stripes and the white shoes with red tassels that Ali wore that night. Frazier wore some cool, mod-looking, green with gold trunks. Additionally, it seems like one or both of them made trips to the hospital that night after the fight. The post fight pictures from the next day showed beaten, puffy and bruised faces as could be expected. This was no joke at 15 rounds. I seem to remember Ali wearing sunglasses.
The match-up was polarizing. I believe it broke on lines of new school and old school. Each guy had a unique style both in and out of the ring. Outside the ring, Ali was a brash, boasting, loud-talking, confident character of the new school. Controversy surrounded him. Inside the ropes he could be flashy, too, with moves like the Ali Shuffle. Frazier was humble and quiet, a blue collar guy who let his fists do the talking. In the ring, his approach was much the same: he was a tough, gritty, inside fighter. I wanted Ali to win and that was new school. My dad wanted Frazier to win and that was old school.
Today’s USA Today has suggested that the fight was a referendum on the Vietnam War. I would respectfully suggest that is the kind of reach that would make Lennox Lewis and Gerry Cooney proud. Come on. However, I remember through the hazy fog of time that the dashing Nguyen Cao Ky was Frazier’s cut man and the glamorous Madame Nhu, the Dragon Lady, was a ring card girl. No? At the very least, the fight was a distraction from the Vietnam War which was supposed to be winding down by that time, anyway. In any event, the hype machine was at full throttle in 1971 and the fight lived up to its billing as The Fight of the Century. It went the distance, Frazier won a unanimous decision, and it is one of the all-time greatest fights ever. Here is hoping that the latest iteration of The Fight of the Century does the same.