What Muhammad Ali told Joe Frazier that set him off — looking back half a century on from their first fight
On this day exactly fifty years ago Ali and Frazier shared their first battle.
The fight took place at Madison Square Garden, New York on March 8th 1971.
Both undefeated at the time.
A fight that Frazier won by unanimous decision in the end.
On the whole, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier shared one of the legendary rivalries in the sport of boxing’s history.
Ali had returned from a three-year or so period in isolative wilderness after having had his license stripped of him for not enlisting in the Vietnam war.
Standing up for a number of Americans during a time of racial inequality, civil and social unrest.
Ali was big on standing up for racial injustice and thought people should have respect for human beings of all beliefs and civil rights.
Two of his daughters mentioned one time that he always stood up for the little guy. The underdog. It got him into trouble at times but he just couldn’t help it sometimes.
Those times are perhaps not too different to today’s when you think about it.
All be it, just that in today’s era — social media and the internet is around.
One wonders what Ali would have been like in 2021. A remarkable man outside of the sport of boxing.
As a boxer inside the ring, though, many believe that Ali was never the same after his exile from boxing.
In that he could have lost those prime few years of his career before the first Frazier fight.
Respectfully, don’t subscribe to that school of thought, though. He showed years later impossible was nothing.
Such was the character of the man, he came back stronger, like he always did, later on to not only win the title again but transcend the entire sport.
Beating Frazier in their two subsequent encounters. Fought the best. Beat the best. Conquering a list of legendary names of the sport — showing when his real prime came.
Ali’s real prime actually was between around 32 and 35.
Stopping Frazier in their third fight. Outpointing Bugner. Stopping Wepner and Lyle and of course — stopping Foreman in ‘The Rumble In The Jungle’.
One thing that is almost hard to imagine though in today’s times regarding the first Frazier fight is this.
Over three-hundred million people across the world watched Ali vs Frazier 1 on some form of television.
Astonishing numbers when you think of it.
That’s where boxing is on the way back to though but you need to add up all the digital and linear numbers.
Which is not easy between the West and the East.
When you really combine all the numbers across the world between digital and linear, that is.
It is very hard to do this in some territories for reasons too complex to explain but boxing is certainly mainstream again.
Back in its rightful place in the pantheon of all sport.
Before the first Ali vs Frazier fight happened an infamous brawl occurred in the build-up.
It wasn’t always quite clear what was said between the two men.
Years later on ESPN, the producer at the time has now spoken on record:
(Hat tip ESPN YouTube)
What they were thinking of having no one sitting between them was anyone’s guess. They were asking for trouble with that.
Two highly strung, highly charged, intense fighters.
Anything at all, one single thing said, was always going to set them off due to putting them that near one another.
Frazier was to have the last laugh in the fight.
An epic bout of back and forth action. Here is the full Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier first fight video:
Perhaps the thing that many forget going into it however was how Frazier helped Ali for years before.
Largely behind the scenes.
Lending him money personally during Ali’s time of struggle and isolation in the wilderness essentially.
Away from the sport and boxing people he loved dearly. On his own.
Frazier during these darks years took time to speak with him on a human level.
Outside of this and one or two of his real people close to him in his inner circle, Ali’s faith got him through those dark, dark years.
Ultimately Frazier would influence the powers that be at the time to give Muhammad his boxing license back.
Before their first fight this was achieved with getting Ali back in boxing.
He had two fights against Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena before facing Frazier in 1971.
Prior to those two, Ali was on his own for ages for three or so years of struggle. Not a lot of people remember that pain he had.
One can’t recall what Frazier did for Ali like that, in that way, of anyone else ever doing that for a close rival in boxing.
In the history of all sport, in fact.
That’s how special Ali and Frazier were.
Not just as fighters but as men.