On Monday night March 8th 1971, the best catch-n-kill style attacker, “Smokin” Joe Frazier 26-0 (23), met the fastest, flashiest and best moving and most natural boxer to ever grace the heavyweight division, Muhammad Ali 31-0 (25). The bout was appropriately called the “Fight Of The Century.” And for 15 grueling and fast paced rounds the FOTC surely lived up to its billing. As it turned out it was one of those rare super-fights in which the realization exceeded the expectation. And to this day 40 plus years later, Frazier-Ali I is the super-fight by which all super-fights are measured.
Never have two more skilled heavyweights faced each other in the ring for the title while both were at or near their physical prime as was the case for the FOTC. That statement may tweak some fans of Muhammad Ali because he was only five months into his comeback after his forced three and a half year exile due to his refusal to be inducted into the Unites States Army because he was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. But I defy anyone to find a single bout of Ali’s pre or post exile where he punched with more combined speed and power, especially during the first five rounds, than he did during the FOTC. Ali was cat-quick and hit with real authority because he had no choice since he had a wrecking machine in front of him by the name of Joe Frazier. Joe forced Ali to fight at a pace and tempo that he hadn’t before ever had to, and Muhammad answered the call.
Since Frazier’s passing last week it’s been often repeated that Joe took part in the greatest heavyweight title bout in history, the “Thrilla In Manila” which was the third and final meeting between he and Ali. And if you conducted a poll among boxing purist as to what was the greatest fight in heavyweight title history, it’s pretty safe to say that Ali-Frazier III (The Thrilla In Manila) would finish at the top of the list. And that’s not easily refuted. That being said, the FOTC was the better fight and is the one you’d show a new boxing fan if you wanted them to fully appreciate what professional boxing looks like at the highest level.
When heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali, 33, defended his undisputed title against Joe Frazier, 31, back in the fall of 1975, both greats were on the decline. They were both 10 pounds heavier than they were four years early when they clashed for the first time in New York’s Madison Square Garden. No doubt the “Thrilla In Manila” was a brutal fight that lasted 14 rounds and saw both fighters beat each other to near death. However, in reality it was three fights in one. For the first four or five rounds Ali was in complete control and really shook Joe good, almost putting him down. Then starting around the end of the fifth round and clearly by the beginning of the sixth, Frazier started working Ali over to the head and body with massive lefts hooks and right hands. Joe continued cleaning up on Muhammad until the early part of the 12th round when Ali got what seemed to be his third or fourth second wind.
In rounds 13 and 14 Ali hit Frazier at will and it looked almost like target practice. At the end of the 14th round Joe could barely make it back to his corner. When Joe told trainer Eddie Futch that he couldn’t see Ali’s right hands because of the swelling around his eyes and face, Futch stopped the fight and concluded the greatest rivalry in sports history with the record books documenting Ali as the winner and holding a 2-1 nod over his bitter rival and career nemesis.
As great of a fight as the “Thrilla In Manila” was for its sheer brutality, the fact of the matter is, neither Ali or Frazier had any defensive skills left and couldn’t miss each other. When Muhammad managed to keep Joe on the outside, he was defenseless and was picked apart. Yet once Frazier got inside he punished Ali and was in command. When Ali went on the attack, Frazier clearly got the worst of it, and once Ali needed a breather, Joe took over the fight. During the bout neither fighter was terribly accurate at a time when they both lacked head and upper body movement. And as the bout progressed it looked as though making the opponent miss was something unheard of to them. Both fighters had slowed down significantly since their first fight, but yet still couldn’t get out of the way from the Sunday punches they launched at each other.
Contrast that to the “Fight Of The Century” which was fought at warp speed with both fighters showing brilliant offensive and defensive skills throughout the bout. There were times during FOTC that Ali actually won the inside exchanges just as there were patches of the fight that saw Frazier better Ali from the outside. Also, the punching power and accuracy exhibited by both fighters during the FOTC was superior to that to which was on display in “Manila.”
During the FOTC Ali looked at times as though he was on the verge of taking complete control of the fight, at least during rounds one through 10, only to find himself with his back pinned against the ropes and looking as if he was at the end of the road in the subsequent round. Also during their first fight, Joe made Ali look like an amateur at times due to his bobbing and weaving as he constantly made Ali’s punch down as his left jabs and follow up right hands sailed above or past Joe’s head.
For 10 rounds the fight was contested pretty much evenly. Then with a minute left in the 11th round Frazier nailed Ali with a double left hook to the body and then to the head. The punch hurt Ali so badly that he was falling all over the ring for the rest of the round and appeared to be within a punch or two from Joe finishing him.
Joe’s aggression and determination that night was a thing to behold. He physically forced Ali to raise his game to a level he’d hadn’t ever dreamed of before. And because of the great athlete and super competitor Ali was, he managed to stay in the fight until 24 seconds into the 15th and final round when a desperate Ali was set to throw a right uppercut at the incoming Frazier, only to be beaten to the punch by Frazier’s big left hook that caught him on the point of his chin and dropped him as if he were shot. Ali was up at the count of four, but other than a brief flurry with a minute left in the round, Frazier won the round and sealed the fight in his favor via a unanimous decision.
As for sheer brutality, I suppose the Manila fight gets the nod, but that’s the only advantage you could give it. The “Fight Of The Century” was damn near as brutal, it was fought at a faster pace and also saw each fighter land some of the hardest and most accurate single shots and combinations either ever threw on any night of their career. It also had more drama and suspense and both fighters were great that night. In Manila they exhibited toughness and determination more than anything else.
If you put both fights on a split screen and watched each round together, your eyes would be drawn to the side of the screen that was showing the “FOTC.” And that’s because it was everything the “Thrilla” was and then some. Yes, Joe Frazier did partake in the greatest heavyweight title bout in history, and it’s correctly known as the “Fight Of The Century,” and he won it.
I can’t help but think the reason why the “Thrilla In Manila” is thought of as being a greater fight than the “Fight of The Century” by many fans is because Muhammad Ali won in “Manila” and lost the “Fight Of The Century.” In addition to that, the “Thrilla In Manila” has been shown much more often on TV because ESPN owns the rights to it. Jerry Perenchio owns the rights to the “Fight Of The Century” and it hasn’t been on TV since the summer of 1990.
The “Fight Of The Century” had everything you could ever ask for in a great title bout. The “Thrilla In Manila” was maybe the most brutal and physically taxing heavyweight title fight ever, but for the reasons stated above, it ranks right behind the “Fight Of The Century” on the list of the greatest heavyweight championship bouts of all time.