Ali v Frazier, 50 years on, still casts a shadow long enough to eclipse Fury v Joshua

I don’t think Clay will want one.

Joe Frazier answers the question of a rematch following his seminal victory over Ali in 1971.

I was born in the summer of 1973. Bawling my way in as a humbled United States left Vietnam, a few weeks before Nixon’s impeachment began and Great Britain joined the EEC it left acrimoniously in January. I arrived broadly equidistant between Muhammad Ali’s back to back encounters with Kenny Norton. I like to refer to Kenny as Kenny, I don’t really know why. Perhaps I hope it implies friendship. On that basis, Mr. Norton would probably be more appropriate, but I digress.

Kenny was of course the strapping enigma the Champ could never quite resolve, in those two fights or in their trilogy bout in ’76. By the time my interest in boxing was stirred, first by the emotive sight of Barry McGuigan walking through the mist and hot breath of Loftus Road to face Pedroza in ’85, and then the amalgam of Tyson, Balboa and Herol, Muhammad Ali was no longer an active fighter.

There he remained. Still waters. Frozen in time and placed out of sight by retirement, remembered only by the words and pictures contained on my, by then, late grandfather’s book case.

His caricature adorned the walls of the dentist in the ’80s, or so my memory insists, it may have been Superman, it may have been Ali, perhaps it was both, but beyond that his astonishing gifts could only be appreciated in the reflections of others. The knowledge of his greatness was absorbed gradually. Reliant on the proxy of those who watched him first defy the limitations size imposes on heavyweights during his dancing wizardry of the ’60s and then, the bittersweet confection of guile and resilience he employed to beat some of the greatest big men to ever lace them up as his speed faded.

The only time he manifested in the present as I grew up, albeit fleetingly, was in the midst of Mike Tyson’s reign, a tabloid indulging the pantomime suggestion he was coming back to tackle the ‘Baddest Man on the Planet’. It was a yarn that stuck hard in my mind however whimsical the notion.

‘A comeback’ was a shtick he would repeat late into his dotage. On meeting his successors to the throne, Lennox or Iron Mike, at one ceremony or another, he would bite his bottom lip and whisper about a return as he threw off a shoulder of his jacket. Ali always found the presence of a fearsome giant irresistible and a microphone or camera a compelling accomplice to his mischief. The words found space in that tabloid of my childhood, despite the nonsense they represented, because of his greatness and because Editors knew he could still hold the attention of an audience, the generation or two who grew up bewitched by his handsome face, Louisville Lip and daring deed.

His accomplishments hadn’t yet been dressed for Hollywood nor his social impact been truly understood, but his words retained weight and resonance long into his belated retirement. That aside, in the absence of the media platforms of today and in advance of the films about his life, he was, to this child of the late 70s and 80s, an interviewee on Parkinson, the star of This is Your Life, very much the former champ. The cannon of his work wasn’t available. Was kept only in the warmth of folklore and fable. Available technology encouraged no gluttony in the consumption of his fights or the replaying of his rhymes and bombast.

All of which provides preamble and landscape to any perspective I can offer regarding the Fight of The Century in 1971, when Muhammad Ali, the prodigal Champion, faced Joe Frazier, the champion of the moment.

Frazier v Ali 1971. The Fight of any Century

I wasn’t there. I don’t know. Nevertheless, Ali v Frazier’s status as the greatest fight, in terms of its uniqueness as a contest between two unbeaten heavyweight champions, and the sacrifices and brilliance it demanded of the two protagonists, is impossible to contradict. It is a zenith of public interest, of the equality of desire and self-belief the two held and the perfect alchemy of styles, personality and timing. The fact animosity existed between them, created by Ali, cruel as he was, and festered upon by Frazier added acrimony to the bout and a further frisson of anticipation and menace to the entire event.

Remarkably, given the traffic stopping hysteria it created, the fight itself lived up to the promise.

No new words can be written about that contest, the war that ensued. Reordered perhaps, an additional, previously unused, superlative may be found by a fortune scribe somewhere, but there is precious little that could be written that isn’t better described by the pictures. By the footage.

On that March night, 50 years ago, Joe Frazier was the best Joe Frazier he ever was and Muhammad Ali was forced to concede that Joe’s Joe was better than the Muhammad Ali he mustered after a three year break, and perhaps ever could’ve been.

In the summer of 2021, we may finally see Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua fight. A few promoters and journalists will hang the same ‘Fight of the Century’ tag on this new encounter because of the two combatants’ relative merits and titles and the convenience of the anniversary. Don’t discount Fury entering the ring in Joe’s green and gold shorts to further encourage the association.

It is a great fight. And like that famous night 50 years ago, a necessary fight. Either man might win. There is animosity. A clash of styles.

But it isn’t, nor ever could be, Ali v Frazier at Madison Square Gardens in 1971.

I know. I wasn’t there.


Boxing opinion and insight by David Payne

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