In the 1970’s boxing was one of the marquee sports in America alongside the patriotic pillars of Baseball and Basketball.
In the 1970’s boxing was one of the marquee sports in America alongside the patriotic pillars of Baseball and Basketball. The heavyweight division itself was in a period of coruscating brilliance, with the noteworthy fighters regularly dicing and jousting for the public’s pleasure. It was an era where men were men and behemoths like George Foreman were renowned for pummelling foes as opposed to grilling chicken. But for all the glamour and glitz of this golden age, it was left to two vastly different men to imprint Seventies pugilism on the consciousness of sports fans forevermore.
On the surface they had no commonalties; one a jibe-talking, outspoken poster boy, whilst the other an inarticulate, humble grafter. However, inside the squared circle Muhummad Ali and Joe Frazier shared an indomitable spirit, unwavering resolve and a fierce will to succeed. Their techniques were contrasting, with Ali inclined to slickly dancing and posturing his way to an opponent’s humiliating demise; whereas Frazier would maraud forward with his crude, clubbing style bludgeoning opponents into submission. They were two demi-Gods who had entranced the eyes of the world and by the March of 1971, circumstances had transpired to draw them into a bout of unprecedented intrigue.
The underlying narrative of the clash was engrossing enough with the former champion Ali returning to reclaim his mantle of ‘heavyweight champ’ after spending four years in obscurity for refusing to honour his nations call of duty in Vietnam. In his absence, Frazier had ascended his vacated throne but failed to capture the world’s affection as the ever charismatic and alluring Ali had. The press anointed Ali the favourite despite his patent ring-rust throughout his flamboyant comeback parade, but under the stark, scrutinising lights of Madison Square Garden all truths inevitably come to bear.
The fight itself outstripped all expectations, with both warriors priming themselves for fifteen rounds of untold violence and gruelling combat. Ali controlled the early skirmishes with his disorientating speed, yet as the bout progressed Frazier came to the fore; his jarring hooks the antidote to his competitor’s guile. It was power that eventually prevailed over poise with Frazier victorious, sending a beaten but unbowed Ali to the canvas in the final round and to hospital with a mangled jaw. The contest was deemed ‘The Fight of the Century’ and served to add further lustre to the growing rivalry steeped in boxing folklore.
Fast forward four years to the humidity of Manilla in the heart of the Phillipines: the setting for a final fistic conference between the two. A backdrop of personal animus lingered between the fighters, after distasteful racial taunting from a scornful Ali served as a prelude to a gruesome slugfest. Transmitted to captivated audiences worldwide, Ali finally slew Frazier in the final round with Frazier unable to compete due to thick welts masking his vision. Enemies outside the ring, the prizefighters had collaborated to produce a series of fights that entered the sporting pantheon with immediacy.
Fittingly, as the Philadelphian departed it was left to his nemesis Ali to lead the tributes, showing the warmth surviving after years of estrangement. ‘The world has lost a great champion,’ Ali whispered from his frail form. With boxing currently languishing in the margins of professional sport, the passing of Smokin’ Joe can at the very least usher our generation back to the vaults of Youtube to relive the drama he forged. This will be lasting legacy of Joe Frazier.