By Frank Lotierzo
It's hard to fathom it's been 45 years since the "Fight of the Century" between heavyweight champion "Smokin" Joe Frazier 26-0 (23) and former champ Muhammad Ali 31-0 (25). The FOTC remains the sporting event, not just boxing match, against which all others are measured. Frazier-Ali I was and remains the most anticipated fight in history - there was nothing like it before or after. It was one of the rare mega-fights in which the realization exceeded the expectation.
I'm not going to get into the political or cultural ramifications of the bout. I'll just say that Ali was exiled from boxing for refusing military induction because he was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. On April 27, 1967 he was stripped of his undisputed title and exited boxing with a perfect record of 29-0 (23), after making nine consecutive title defenses.
During Ali's absence he was succeeded by Joe Frazier, who looked every bit as impressive on the way up the ranks as had Ali four years earlier. Ali, who hadn't lost the title in the ring, returned to boxing as "The Peoples Champ" on October 26, 1970 and stopped top contender Jerry Quarry due to eye cuts after the third round. Six weeks later he fought Oscar Bonavena, another top-5 contender, and TKO'd the rugged Argentine for the only time in his career, stopping him in the 15th round. Finally on December 30, 1970, after nearly four years of hype and ballyhoo, Frazier and Ali agreed to fight on March 8 1971 at Madison Square Garden for the undisputed heavyweight title for a then record $2.5 million dollars apiece guaranteed purse.
As fighters, Joe and Muhammad were polar opposites.....one's strength was the other’s weakness and vice-versa. Ali was greater and more physically gifted than any other fighter Frazier had ever fought, and Frazier was more aggressive and determined than any opponent Ali ever fought. Frazier won the bout via a 15 round unanimous decision by the scores of 8-6-1, 9-6 and 11-4 to become the undisputed champ. Joe nearly had Ali out on his feet late in the 11th round and even dropped Ali in the 15th round, decking him with a massive left hook to the jaw. Frazier and Ali went on to fight two more times, in 1974 and 1975, with Ali winning both. However, neither bout, not even "The Thrilla In Manila," was fought at nearly the warp speed and skill level as super-fight I.
In my opinion Muhammad Ali is the greatest heavyweight champ in boxing history. But there is one thing in which my conviction is even stronger - and that is, Joe Frazier never got his due credit for conclusively beating Ali the first time they met in the biggest fight of both of their careers.
All these years later -- and it's still repeated by Ali partisans – is how he only lost to Frazier the first time they clashed because he was coming off a 43 month forced layoff. Yes, that's a fact, but if you watched the fight and didn't know Ali only had two bouts in four years prior to meeting Joe, you would never have guessed it by the way he fought. What is often overlooked is that Ali returned to the ring more filled out physically. He was stronger in the seventies than he was during the sixties, which he stated after fighting Quarry and Bonavena. When Ali was exiled in 1967 he was only 25 years old; when he fought Frazier the first time he was a fully matured man who just turned 29. Granted, he wasn't quite as fast as he was during the sixties, but he was still much faster than Frazier.
For the first five rounds of Super-fight I, Ali never looked better. He hit Frazier with some of the swiftest combinations he ever landed on any other opponent before or afterward. Prior to the bout Ali reiterated that he was punching harder after coming back to the ring than he ever had in his career. The problem was Ali's plan for a quick execution of the notoriously slow starting Frazier didn't work as he was being forced to fight harder than he ever had before just to keep Frazier from getting inside on him.
Joe Frazier understood long before he ever fought Ali that he had the perfect style, temperament, stamina and punch to become a living nightmare for him. Joe said repeatedly before the fight, it's a lot different backing up on your own than it is when you're being forced to go back. He fully grasped that he could go faster moving forward than Ali could going backward. Frazier also knew his elusive head and upper-body movement along with his ability to cut off the ring and inch closer to Ali at the same time would offset Muhammad's lighting quick jabs and combination punching.
Over the years some have inferred how Frazier attacked in a straight line and only moved in the direction his opponent moved. That's cookbook analogy. How can a fighter move his feet before he knows the direction in which his foe is moving? Don't take my word for it, just watch the fight. You'll see Ali only moved and circled the ring in spurts because he was physically drained trying to fight Frazier off of him because Joe intercepted him and cut off his escape route at virtually every turn.
Remember, Ali of the sixties and seventies was faster than Frazier, it's just that Joe's aggression and ability to force the fight on the inside often nullified Muhammad's speed advantage. And when Ali went to the ropes and clowned around it was because he was tired and needed a breather. Knowing that he wasn't going to stop Frazier inside the distance, he was forced to pace himself and conserve his energy so he could go 15 rounds. Again, this was a result of Frazier's non-stop bell-to-bell effective pressure while forcing Muhammad to fight when he didn't want to.
When watching the bout it's abundantly clear that while doing combat with Joe Frazier, Ali was forced to pick one of three options to deal with Joe....(1) hold him and endure body punches on the inside (2) fight it out with him with the hope of preventing Frazier from getting inside or (3) dance away if he could in order to disrupt the exchange. It just so happened that Frazier could live with any of those three options; in turn they forced Ali to use up his energy and stamina. In addition to that, Frazier knew that once he was on the inside, Ali couldn't successfully exchange hooks and uppercuts with him. Another thing, Frazier was cognizant that Ali only threw hooks and uppercuts from outside in order to prevent his opponent from getting inside. Joe knew once inside, Ali didn't really punch that hard and ignored going to the body, which resulted in him getting the better of the exchanges.
During the entire 15 rounds, Frazier was able to get inside and close enough to land his vaunted left-hook on Ali's jaw almost routinely. Ali, who is supposed to be one of the greatest boxers and technicians ever, never figured out how to block Frazier's biggest weapon and finishing punch, the left hook. Frazier's pressure and ability to cut the ring off and force Ali into a corner or against the ropes while working over his body with both hands was something Muhammad never confronted before. Ali was convinced before ever facing Frazier that he could move and box Joe the way he did Ernie Terrell and Zora Folley in 1967. However, Frazier’s bobbing and weaving forced him to rush his punches, thus made him miss with his left jab, which in turn made Ali more judicious when it came to throwing his right hand. Furthermore, Ali couldn't pick his spots to flurry and score against Frazier and then get out. In reality he was under duress the entire fight and had he not been such an incredibly strong man mentally and physically, he may have succumbed to Frazier's pressure and body attack all three times they fought. In their second and third fights, in a bit of irony, Ali actually out-toughed Frazier more than he out-boxed him.
Joe Frazier was a tireless non-stop aggressor who made Ali miss and then made him pay every time they faced each other. To fight the swarming style in which Frazier fought, a fighter has to be in spectacular condition, and Joe was a monster when it came to being in condition. He was one of the few fighters in history who actually got stronger and better as the bout progressed. On March 8, 1971 Joe Frazier was better prepared mentally, physically and stylistically for Muhammad Ali than any other fighter who has entered the ring for a big fight. Joe's intense pace took a lot out of Ali and that's why Muhammad only won one round legitimately after the 10th round, and that was the 14th. And that may have been the case against vintage Ali of 1964-67 just the same. Some observers and fans forget that George Chuvalo, who wasn't as aggressive, fast or powerful as Frazier, nor could he cut the ring off half as good, had success forcing Ali to the ropes and corners while working over his body in 1966. Sure, sometimes Ali went there on his own, but that was because he needed to rest and it was easier to allow Chuvalo to whack him to the body than it was to use himself up physically trying to move away. And that applied three-fold when he fought Frazier in 1971.
If you think about it, Ali really never solved Joe's style. During their rematch he had to resort to holding and tying up a less formidable Frazier behind his neck as a defensive tactic and that resulted in a close decision win for Ali. After their final meeting, the "Thrilla In Manila," Ali said due to Frazier coming after him non-stop, it was the closest thing to dying that he ever experienced in the ring. Ali was so tired that he collapsed in his corner after Joe's trainer Eddie Futch prevented Frazier from coming out for the 15th round due to him not being able to see because both of his eyes were nearly swollen shut.
What has been overlooked during the many years since is how great a fighter Ali was the night he met Frazier for the first time. He was more experienced and physically stronger than the Ali who beat Sonny Liston in 1964, and less ring worn at 29 than he would be at almost 33 when he defeated George Foreman in 1974. Frazier beat a great version of Ali in 1971 and there's no way to get around that. Ali didn't do what he needed to or wanted to because Frazier prevented him from doing it. Ali didn’t go into the bout wanting to fight flatfooted or with his back to the ropes, it’s just that he didn't have a choice. No, it wasn't easy for Joe and there's a great case that he was never the same fighter again due to the bout being so tough and closely contested.
Yes, Muhammad Ali is the greatest heavyweight of all time, but in all honesty, I'm not sure any version of him that I ever saw, would've defeated "Smokin" Joe on Monday night March 8, 1971. I also have reservations as to whether Ali would've defeated Frazier the first time they fought regardless of when it took place. And that's because Ali wouldn't have been prepared to be roughed up and forced to fight with his back to the ropes or in one of the four ring corners as Frazier made him. Once he experienced fighting Frazier the first time, he had a better read on what he was in for, but Ali still endured a bad going over to the head and body in their two subsequent fights that he won.
Joe Frazier was the victor in the biggest fight of all time, and Muhammad Ali came in second place. Frazier was at his brilliant best and refused to be denied victory. If you chose to rank Ali above Frazier historically, which I do, that's fair. However, denying Frazier his due credit and making excuses as to why Ali lost is dishonest and simply denying the obvious! It’s very plausible that no other heavyweight in fistic history would’ve bettered Ali that night……… other than the one who did.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com
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