On This Day: Ali, Frazier, And The Dawn Of Boxing’s Greatest Rivalry

In April 1971, James Taylor released the album Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon — as far as we can tell, not a reference to the famed Philly fight club — featuring his No. 1 hit cover of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.”

Ahead of the album’s release, the then-22-year-old singer-songwriter was scheduled to headline at Madison Square Garden in New York on March 8. But March 8 emerged early in 1971 as the ideal date for Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier to fight each other at MSG, which was prepared to put up 10 per cent of the fighters’ purses in order to host. Ali was still facing the threat of going to prison in April for his refusal to be drafted, so as far as the boxers and the financial forces behind the endeavor were concerned, it was looking like March 8, or maybe never.

So Sweet Baby James took step-aside money (or at least VIP tickets to the fight).

Ali-Frazier was on.

And you couldn’t imagine an event more distant from the sentiments of “You’ve Got a Friend.”

On the 53rd anniversary of Ali-Frazier I — or Frazier-Ali I, if you prefer — the bout is remembered largely in three manners, each of them featuring such superlatives as “greatest,” “best,” or “most.”

It is one of the greatest fights ever, from a combined action, drama, and skill standpoint. (In 1996, The Ring ranked it No. 4 on a list of the 100 greatest title fights of all-time, to cite one reference point reflecting its historical standing.)

It stands out as one of just a handful of times in the history of the sport when a boxing match took on significance well beyond just the athletic competition. Only the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling rematch 33 years earlier and Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries 28 years before that compared in terms of a 20th century fight that was in fact much more than just a fight.

And it was the start of the most famous rivalry in boxing history, and quite possibly the most bitter.

This simple quote from former Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter Stan Hochman, delivered in the 2000 HBO Sports documentary Ali-Frazier I: One Nation … Divisible, neatly sums things up: “I always thought that they brought out the best in each other in the ring, and the worst in each other outside the ring.”

Ali was the lineal heavyweight champion, a title he won from Sonny Liston in 1964 , but he was exiled in ’67 for his objection to going to Vietnam.

In ’68, Frazier knocked out Buster Mathis to claim the vacant New York State Athletic Commission title, and unified it with the two most prominent alphabet titles at the time by flattening Jimmy Ellis in 1970.

During this time, Frazier proved a key ally in helping Ali get his license back — and even in providing him with some financial assistance while Ali was unable to ply his trade.

And how did Ali thank him? By calling him ugly, dumb, and an Uncle Tom, stoking promotional flames, but also emotional flames within “Smokin’ Joe.” In a decidedly out-of-character lapse, Frazier took the bait and started calling Ali by his former name, Cassius Clay.

“He was like a fireball, because of the things that Mr. Ali was saying to him,” Joe’s son Marvis, who was 10 at the time of the first Ali fight, said in a 2014 interview. “It really got down into his heart, because, here was a guy that helped another brother, to help him when everybody was against him because of not going to the war, you know what I mean, and then he was the one to help him get his license back, and then for him to say the things that he said to him, it was kind of hard for my dad. He couldn’t understand it.

“I believe in that first fight, that my dad, he wanted to get him. He wanted to get him.”

That personal animosity never quite abated. I interviewed Frazier at his Philadelphia gym in November 1998, and he was still bitter, specifically ranking himself ahead of Ali among the all-time great heavyweights (third overall, behind Louis and Rocky Marciano). There were occasions over the years when Frazier and Ali would publicly make up, but Joe never seemed entirely authentic when doing so, and he would usually un-broker the peace before long with a crack about how his punches put Ali in his diminished physical state.

If it had just been these two men squaring off, remove all external factors, the pure boxing significance alone would have been enough to make it one of the biggest fights of all-time.

Interesting, there are certain commonalities with the biggest heavyweight fight on the 2024 calendar, Tyson Fury vs. Oleksandr Usyk: You had the lineal champ, who’d never lost the title in the ring but had been inactive, taking on the fighter who collected multiple belts, both of them undefeated, the winner exiting undisputed.

Ali was 31-0 (25 KOs). Frazier was 26-0 (23 KOs). Ali was 29. Frazier was 27. Both were U.S. Olympic gold medalists. Ali was the biggest personality the sports world had ever known, the embodiment of “larger than life,” and Frazier provided the perfect contrast, a stone-serious destroyer who preferred to let his fists — especially the left one — do the talking.

Larry Merchant, then with the New York Post, has referred to Frazier as “a truth machine.” Smokin’ Joe was the man to tell us whether the post-exile Ali was the same fighter as pre-exile.

Purely as a fight, Ali-Frazier was as promotable as they come.

But it went several levels beyond that because of what they had come to represent.

Jerry Perenchio, previously a Hollywood agent who had never promoted a fight before but decided to take the reins on Ali-Frazier, said looking back nearly 30 years later, “It sounded like a hell of an idea, and I thought it would be a huge event that would transcend boxing because it had to do with the Vietnam War, and religion, and being Black in America, and all of that.”

Bryant Gumbel wrote an article — which he later said he strongly regretted — headlined “Joe Frazier, A White Champion In Black Skin.” Ali was part of the counter-culture, an anti-establishment figure. That left Frazier to be painted as part of the establishment, by contrast. It was no more fair than Schmeling serving as a stand-in for Adolf Hitler in 1938, but it was the role assigned to the Philly-based son of a South Carolina sharecropper.

“What you got,” reflected Hall of Fame boxing journalist Bert Sugar, “was a tremendous polarization: those who were rooting for Ali as the standard bearer for resistance to the draft, and those who were supporting Joe Frazier not because he said we should be there — he didn’t — but because he was the anti-Ali.”

J Russell Peltz, then a 24-year-old who’d been a promoter for less than two years, tells the story in his book, Thirty Dollars and a Cut Eye, of being tasked by Frazier’s trainer/manager Yank Durham with selling the Frazier camp’s comped tickets. One of them was for a front-row seat.

“I wrestled with the front-row ticket,” Peltz wrote. “Should I buy it or sell it? It was a lot of money for me at the time.”

He sold it, and instead bought himself a nosebleed seat for $20. So Peltz was there that night at Madison Square Garden for “The Fight of the Century.”

But he has profound regrets about what seemed a financially prudent decision at the time.

Speaking to BoxingScene this week, Peltz lamented, “I’d have been rubbing elbows with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Diana Ross! Aretha Franklin, Burt Lancaster — I mean, to sit first row at Ali-Frazier!”

Lancaster was part of the closed-circuit announce team, alongside Don Dunphy and Archie Moore. Tickets just to see Ali-Frazier at closed-circuit venues — the only way to catch it if you didn’t have a seat at MSG — cost as much as $30, which converts to $228 today, an outrageous amount to watch anything on a movie screen.

Peltz feels the magnitude of Ali-Frazier I, historically, cannot be overstated.

“It was the greatest sporting event ever, any sport, and it was probably the greatest social event ever,” he said. “Not only because of who was there, but because it was the hawks and the doves and the young generation and the alleged Uncle Tom — which was terrible.

“Muhammad Ali was, in his day, the most well-known person on earth. More recognizable than Gandhi. More than Mao. I mean, they knew him in the darkest recesses of Zimbabwe, where nobody knew who Mickey Mantle was. He was it. Whether you liked him or not, everybody knew who Muhammad Ali was.

“And it was two undefeated champions. You know, when ESPN showed the fight on the 50th anniversary a few years ago and I was watching it on television, I started to tear up because I knew that boxing would never be like that again. The world would never stop and stand still again like that for a prize fight.”

It’s nearly impossible to live up to that level of hype, but as a boxing match, Ali-Frazier I did. And then some.

Ali, in red trunks, started well, winning the first two rounds on the cards, but then the pressure of Frazier, wearing green, started paying off. He got closer, began landing his signature left hook, and soon Ali was growing flat-footed. Smokin’ Joe was in the zone, looking exceptionally comfortable weaving his way around Ali’s jab and firing hooks.

But Ali was very much in the fight, and had a huge ninth round. Through 10, it was hard to make a case for either champion leading by more than a couple of points.

Frazier made a statement in the 11th. He landed a left hook that badly buckled Ali’s knees. But blessed with one of the best chins and biggest hearts in pugilistic history, Ali refused to go down.

And just when it seemed in the next couple of rounds like Frazier was ready to run away with the fight, “The Greatest” rallied in spots.

Entering the 15th round, Frazier was too far ahead on the scorecards to be caught — but it seemed close enough that neither man could be sure of the outcome.

Then Frazier landed one of the most famous punches in boxing history — certainly the most iconic non-knockout punch ever. A left hook some 24 seconds into the final round dropped Ali flat on his back. Somehow Ali got up immediately — he was fully upright by the time referee Arthur Mercante reached the count of three.

But the damage was done. The knockdown gave Frazier’s unanimous decision win an exclamation point.

Dunphy said Frazier “has just scored the greatest victory of his career — of anybody’s career.”

“I know a lot of people say the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ was a better fight,” Peltz reflected 53 years later. “I don’t know about that. There’s so many things that go into making a great fight. This was a great fight. It was the right decision. It was capped off with — you couldn’t write a better script. You wouldn’t want anybody to get knocked out, but the 15th-round knockdown, it was just perfect. Just perfect.”

Quibble if you must over where Ali-Frazier I ranks relative to Ali-Frazier III, Hagler-Hearns, Corrales-Castillo, Dempsey-Firpo, and so on.

You can make reasonable arguments that one of those fights was better in the ring.

But good luck arguing that boxing ever felt bigger than it did on March 8, 1971.