Ali Lost the Biggest Fight Ever and is Perhaps the Greatest Because of It

This past March 8th marked the 47th anniversary of the first fight between Muhammad Ali and “Smokin” Joe Frazier, billed as Frazier vs. Ali being that Joe was the recognized champion going into the fight and the undisputed champ after it. Most boxing observers would agree that this was the most anticipated bout in boxing history due to the fighters and the multitude of dynamics in play.

As fighters they were polar opposites. Their boxing styles — Frazier wanting to fight and trade on the inside and Ali being at his best fighting on the outside while using the ring — made for a compelling contrast. To simplify it, one’s strength was the other’s weakness and vice versa. On top of that, both had a rightful claim to the title. Ali hadn’t lost the title in the ring; he was stripped of it because he refused to be drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. And Frazier had convincingly defeated every top heavyweight in the world, excluding Ali. Frazier 26-0 (23) and Ali 31-0 (25) had perfect records and what made it even more dramatic was that it was just about impossible to envision either one losing to the other.

As we know, Frazier knocked Ali down in the 15th round and won a unanimous decision (8-6-1, 9-6, 11-4). On the anniversary I posted some thoughts on social media and exchanged thoughts on the fight with a few friends and colleagues. And to my surprise, I was presented with some views suggesting the fight should’ve been a draw or that, if not for the knockdown, Ali deserved to be the winner.

If you happen to fall into that category, let’s make this perfectly clear – Joe Frazier conclusively defeated Muhammad Ali on March 8th, 1971. Frazier won at least nine of the 15 rounds and under today’s scoring he would’ve been awarded two 2-point rounds, the first being the 11th round when Ali was badly hurt and almost out on his feet and then the last round due to the knockdown. So forget about trying to convince anyone Ali had the better of it. Years later he admitted he lost and doesn’t need his loyal fans fighting Joe Frazier for him 47 years later hoping to win a fight he clearly lost.

Only Muhammad Ali could lose the biggest fight in history and still become “The Greatest”:

And here’s why….

The reality is that losing the first fight to Frazier was the biggest blessing of Ali’s career even though it didn’t seem that way in 1971. What Ali fans fail to realize is that if Ali beat Frazier the first time they met, Joe would’ve been dismissed as being a great champion. The prevailing thought would’ve been that Frazier was good, but only won the title because Ali was removed from the boxing scene. Then it would be asked who did Frazier really beat? The most notable were Buster Mathis, Oscar Bonavena, Jerry Quarry, and Jimmy Ellis and once those fighters were dismissed, Frazier would’ve been dismissed as well. By soundly beating Ali, Frazier proved he was an all-timer and not a caretaker of the title until Ali returned to reclaim it.

If we follow the timeline, 22 months later Olympic gold medalist George Foreman 37-0 (34) mutilates Frazier in two rounds in roughly five minutes of actual combat to become the new undisputed champ. Frazier was established as a great by defeating the undefeated Ali; Foreman after beating Joe was considered one of the most feared heavyweight champs ever and rightfully so. After all, Ali couldn’t do much more than administer a few dents on Frazier in 45 minutes, which pales in comparison to what Foreman did to him. Thus, Ali is now viewed as the third best heavyweight on the scene.

Think of it this way….as of January 1973, Frazier beating Ali is bigger and a more significant win than Ali had posted during his career at the time, and Foreman beating Frazier ranks above any win on Ali’s record considering that Sonny Liston was old and probably threw their rematch. Yes, in 1973 Ali was looking up at both Mr. Frazier and Mr. Foreman!

The March 15th 1971 cover of Sports Illustrated showed Frazier knocking Ali down in the 15th round with the caption…”The End of the Ali Legend!”

Wrong. It was the beginning of the Ali legend!

After losing to Frazier, Ali lost a split decision to sixth ranked Ken Norton in March of 1973 which was the low point of his career. Throughout the years 1960-73 Ali said he was the greatest, but in 1973 that rang hollow. For Ali to be considered one of the greats he had to beat one fighter who presented a style conundrum for him in Norton, another fighter who took away his invincibility in Frazier, and lastly the fighter who destroyed both Frazier and Norton and did it while answering the bell for only 4 rounds. Anything shy of besting all three would question whether Ali was the greatest of his era, let alone the greatest heavyweight in history.

The march to solidifying his legacy began on September 10th, 1973, when Ali exacted revenge on Norton by winning a hard-fought 12-round split decision to even their series at 1-1. Four months later, in January of 1974, he returns the favor and defeats Frazier via another hard-fought 12-round decision, this one unanimous, leaving no doubt he was the better man that night. However, he still hasn’t reclaimed the title he was stripped of seven years earlier. It was now held by big and bad George Foreman 40-0 (37).

Prior to their fight, Foreman was thought to be unbeatable. He was a 3-1 favorite over Ali on the night of October 30, 1974, and some feared Foreman would not only beat Ali but it was possible he could permanently injure him. But once again, when his back was to the wall and legacies were on the line, Ali sucked it up. He re-introduced the rope-a-dope strategy that failed against Frazier the first time they fought and this time it worked. Taking liberties with Foreman as the fight progressed, Ali scored the signature victory of his career, winning by an eighth round knockout to become only the second fighter in history (after Floyd Patterson) to lose the heavyweight title and then regain it.

Now as champ Ali had two old rivals in line to take the title away from him, the only two fighters to ever defeat him in Frazier and Norton. Ali faced Frazier in September of 1975 and not only was his title on the line but so also was his legacy. Going into the fight both Ali and Joe were aware that whoever won the rubber match would also be viewed historically as the greater fighter. In what was probably the most grueling heavyweight title fight ever, Ali emerged as the victor when Frazier, due to his lumped-up and swelling face , couldn’t see and was restrained by trainer Eddie Futch from coming out for the 15th round. Thus, Ali keeps the title and takes the series with his all-time great rival Joe Frazier.

To ice the cake Ali defends the title against Ken Norton in September of 1976. Ali wins a controversial unanimous decision and goes up 2-1 over Norton who probably troubled Ali more than any other opponent he ever fought, stylistically. (As a side note, I attended this fight and scored it 8-7 Ali. I’ve re-watched it several times since and my consensus score is 9-6 Ali).

Yes, Muhammad Ali lost the biggest and most celebrated fight in boxing history. That loss confirmed Frazier’s greatness. Frazier subsequently lost the title to George Foreman. Destroying Frazier so clearly gave George his bona-fides as maybe the most feared and hardest puncher ever. Thus giving Ali two great foes that he had to beat conclusively and he did by stopping Foreman in 1974 and Frazier in 1975. If Frazier and Foreman weren’t established greats when Ali defeated them, then it would be said he really didn’t beat any special fighters, as was said of Ali during the sixties.

The fact of the matter is that losing to Frazier was the launch for Ali to build his legacy as the world’s most recognized athlete and as the greatest heavyweight ever. So if you’re a huge fan of Muhammad Ali, accept and admit he lost the first time he fought Frazier; on that there can be no doubt. But it really all worked out well for him because by the time he retired he proved that he was a greater fighter than both Foreman and Frazier. No, Muhammad Ali doesn’t need anyone continuing his battle with “Smokin” Joe in trying to justify a fight he lost, because Ali took care of business himself in the ring when it mattered most and probably wouldn’t even want to be part of the conversation in which he is credited for something he hadn’t earned.

Muhammad Ali is the last fighter in history who needs his admirers fighting an unwinnable fight on his behalf trying to convince other fans that he really won the “Fight of The Century” simply because he overcame it with what he achieved in the subsequent years…….and his legacy thrives forever in spite of being the loser of the biggest fight in boxing history!

Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at

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