Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

40 Years Ago: The Fight of the Century

Posted on March 08, 2011 by Dean Hybl
Frazier knocked Ali down for only the third time in his career in the final round of their first meeting.

Frazier knocked Ali down for only the third time in his career in the final round of their first meeting.

Considering that the sport of boxing is known for using hype to try and turn the most mundane match into a “must see moment”, you might question the validity of a fight dubbed the “Fight of the Century.” However, when undefeated heavyweights Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali met in the ring for the first time at Madison Square Garden 40 years ago today, on March 8, 1971, there was little question that this was a special night and an important moment in the history of boxing.

Perhaps not since the second Louis-Schmeling fight more than 30 years earlier had a heavyweight fight been as anticipated.

The fight matched the controversial Ali, who had been stripped of the Heavyweight Title after refusing induction into the military, against the man who had ultimately taken his place as the Heavyweight Champion.

The 29-year-old Ali entered the fight with a career record of 31-0 (25 knockouts), including two victories in tune-ups since being reinstated after a three and a half year layoff from the sport.

The 27-year-old Frazier was in his prime with a 26-0 record, including 23 wins by knockout.

This battle of titans brought out many of the stars of the day, including Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Dustin Hoffman, Diana Ross and Woody Allen. Just to ensure they were close to the action, Sinatra served as a photographer for Life magazine and Lancaster served as a “color commentator” on the television broadcast.

Though he came out strong and dominated the first three rounds, it soon became obvious to most that even after two tune-ups, Ali was not the same fighter who had devastated his opposition during his reign as Heavyweight Champion.

Frazier withstood the early charge and by the 11th round had seized control of the fight. He knocked Ali down with a devastating blow to the jaw in the 15th round, but Ali managed to rise and finish the fight.

The final decision was no surprise to anyone watching as Frazier won an unanimous decision.

It would prove to be the pinnacle moment of his career. Less than a year later he lost the title to George Foreman and then lost two additional fights with Ali and another to Foreman. He retired in 1976 with a career record of 32-4. He returned to the ring for one fight in 1981, but the matchup with Floyd Cummings ended in a draw.

Ali did lots of talking before the fight, but Frazier saved his for the ring.

Ali did lots of talking before the fight, but Frazier saved his for the ring.

As Ali shed his “ring rust” over the next couple years he began to rely more on withstanding punches than on dancing around the way he had earlier in his career.

He went on to fight 29 more times in his career and twice re-claimed the Heavyweight Championship. The first time was thanks to a famous victory over George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974 and the second time against Leon Spinks in 1978.

Ali lost three of his final four career fights, but finished with a career record of 56-5.

Below are some clips and memories from the “Fight of the Century.”

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