On March 8, 1971, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier meet for the “Fight of the Century” at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The bout marked Ali’s return to the marquee three-and-a-half years after boxing commissions revoked his license over his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. It was also Ali’s first chance to win back the heavyweight championship, which had been stripped by the WBA (World Boxing Association).
Both Ali and Frazier were undefeated and had won Olympic gold medals and multiple Golden Gloves championships, but their personalities were vastly different. Ali was a showboat, and his mastery of the media, his improvisational poetry during interviews and his debonair good looks separated him from every other fighter, and every other athlete, of his generation. Much to his opponent’s dismay, Ali successfully painted the less popular and more reserved Frazier as an “Uncle Tom” and an instrument of the establishment. Leading up to the fight, the national press fawned over Ali, heralding “the hero’s return.” Ali played right along, while doing his best to knock Frazier off his game through mental intimidation. He even went so far as to repeatedly call Frazier a “gorilla.”
On the night of the fight, celebrities filled Madison Square Garden. Miles Davis was resplendent in a red suit. Frank Sinatra sat ringside, photographing the fight for a Life magazine article. It was said that billions of people were following the fight in person, on TV or on the radio, and most of them were cheering for Ali.
The fight lived up to the hype. Ali initially landed more punches, gliding about the ring as light on his feet as he was in the prime of his career. Frazier’s punches, however, seemed to have more impact. By the eighth round, Frazier was leading six rounds to two with each judge. In the 11th round, Ali staggered but fought back, forcing the action into the 12th and 13th rounds. The fight was already decided by the 15th, when Frazier landed a left hook to Ali’s right chin, knocking down the champ for just the third time in his illustrious career. Ali got up, but Frazier won the fight by unanimous decision, retaining his title and delivering Ali the first loss of his career.
The two fighters would fight twice more, in 1974 and 1975, with Ali winning both fights. The rivalry was so intense that, 20 years after their final fight, when Ali carried the torch and lit the ceremonial flame at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Frazier said, “If I had the chance, I would have pushed him in.”