On March 8, 1971, two World Heavyweight Champion boxers, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali faced off at Madison Square Gardens in the “Fight of the Century” to determine the true world champion.
At the time of the fight, both boxers had a legitimate claim to the title “World Heavyweight Champion.” Ali won the title in 1964 from Sonny Liston with an undefeated record, but had been stripped of the title when he refused to register in the draft in 1967. He won an appeal for his conviction and 5-year prison sentence in front of the Supreme Court in 1971 and returned to fighting. During Ali’s hiatus, Frazier had fairly won the title, and soon a match between the two champions received considerable hype and was billed the “Fight of the Century.” Surprisingly, the fight lived up to its name.
Ali had become well-known over the years for his speed and dexterity despite his large size. Frazier was known for his unmatched left hook and the way he would ferociously attack his opponent’s body. At a time when the country felt divided, the two fighters came to represent the two politically and socioeconomic sides of America. Ali represented the anti-establishment left-wing liberals, while Frazier was seen as a symbol for the blue collar pro-war conservatives. This parallel symbolism of the two fighters added to the hype of the highly anticipated fight.
Both fighters were guaranteed a $2.5 million purse for the fight, which was a record for any single prizefight at the time. Madison Square Garden had a raucous atmosphere on the night of the highly publicized fight with tons of police officers on hand to keep the crowd under control, and countless celebrities in attendance. Among them were Norman Mailer, Woody Allen, and Frank Sinatra, who was there taking photos for Life magazine because he was unable to obtain a ringside seat.
Unexpectedly, the fight lasted a full 15 rounds. Ali was on top for the first three rounds, delivering several quick jabs to Frazier’s face, causing it to welt up. Things turned around at the end of round three though, when Frazier struck Ali’s jaw with one of his famous hooks, causing Ali’s head to snap backwards. Frazier followed up by ferociously attacking Ali’s body as he was stunned. The bodily blows wore out Ali, and Frazier began to dominate the match in the fourth round.
By the sixth round, Frazier had attacked Ali with a flurry of his famous left hooks and Ali began to look noticeably run down. Ali still had a speed and combo advantage that kept the match close until the eleventh round. In the eleventh round, Frazier cornered Ali and pummeled him with another one of his left hooks which nearly floored Ali. Ali survived the round and the next three, though Frazier was in the lead for all of them. At the beginning of round 15, Frazier once again struck Ali with a left hook, sending him to the floor on his back. Refusing to give up, Ali stood up with a swollen jaw and lasted the rest of the round despite the terrific amount of blows issued by Frazier. The judges unanimously declared Frazier the winner, and Ali faced his very first loss.
The fight no doubt lived up to its name, and is still considered one of the greatest boxing matches in the history of the sport.