Fight of the Century


From Reader’s Almanac:

It seems like only a heartbeat ago that Frank Sinatra was ringside at Madison Square Garden, camera in hand, straining to get just the right shot of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier as they went to war for the first time. The calendar tells us, however, that forty years have passed. Sinatra is gone. So is Life magazine, which made him part of the working press for the night that launched boxing’s greatest trilogy. Ali and Frazier dwell in retirement like battleships that were too long at sea, but in our memories, they are forever young. That’s the curious thing about what they did for a living: they destroyed each other and gained immortality.

The two of them had been friends before their violent Garden party. When Ali was stripped of his heavyweight championship in 1967 for refusing induction into the military and found himself wandering the college lecture circuit, Frazier loaned him money. It was a fitting gesture, for Frazier now wore the crown that had been Ali’s. But he vowed he would give the deposed champ a chance to win it back, and when Ali was allowed to return to the ring in 1970, Frazier did something that isn’t standard practice in the cutthroat world of boxing. He kept his word.

They would each make $2.5 million and fight in front of a Garden crowd that overflowed with celebrities. Burt Lancaster, Sinatra’s co-star in From Here to Eternity, did the radio commentary. But the only thing that really mattered was the hatred that had erupted when Ali called Frazier an Uncle Tom and a tool of good-old-boy sheriffs and Ku Klux Klansmen. In a lifetime filled with kindness as well as greatness, it was a low moment for Ali. He knew full well that Frazier, the thirteenth child born to a one-armed North Carolina sharecropper, had traveled a far harder road than he had. By comparison, Ali was a child of privilege, raised in relative comfort in Louisville, his boxing career bankrolled by local white businessmen. But he got away with it because he was handsome, charming, funny, all the things Frazier was not.

What Frazier was, was mad enough to kill.

“Forty years ago, the first Muhammad Ali–Joe Frazier bout, touted as “The Fight of the Century,” linked their legends forever”, John Schulian, Reader’s Almanac