Madison Square Garden. The center of the universe. Fifty years later, the scene still electrifies the air.
Over 300 million people worldwide tuned in for what was aptly dubbed the “Fight of the Century,” between the most feared heavyweight of the day and the greatest that ever was. Two men. Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. Two black men. Two giants of the times, who represented much more than their own flesh and blood. Names synonymous with boxing’s golden heavyweight era, and figures who stood tall amid surrounding tensions in the air — tensions of war, of religion, of politics. Of racial divides and defiance. Tensions of words and actions.
March 8, 1971, that was the night it all went down in the heart of Manhattan. Champion versus champion, Frazier and Ali, opposites in every possible way. Ali the bombastic, outspoken, larger-than-life figure who stood up for his beliefs and wore his controversies like a fashion statement. Frazier the soft-spoken southern-born brooder from Philly, who carried massive power in his hands. Especially that left hook.
That left hook. That left hook was business.
Anybody who was anybody was in the building that night. But there were thousands of high profile celebrities and athletes that couldn’t get in and had to watch on a closed circuit at Radio City Music Hall. Frank Sinatra took a freelance gig as Life magazine’s ringside photographer just to get up close. It was a cultural event.
What happened? Giants dared to be great. Frazier in the low crouch, firing shots to the body. Ali peppering Frazier with that long jab in space. The chants of “Ali” thundered across Madison Square Garden, and the pace was frantic. Ali up top. Frazier countering low with that left hook, his arm extending from his shoulders like the blade of a scythe. Behind everything was the promise of finality, the brutal power to destroy a mark. The thrill of the end keeping so near, and there was Ali dancing across the minefield.
With each passing round there was desperate captivation. The narrative just wouldn’t stay still. Frazier taunting. Ali rolling. Frazier laughing, and Ali his head “no” after a big shot — as if to say, nothing can hurt me. Deadly shot after deadly shot, and neither going away. By mid-fight, chants of “Joe! Joe! Joe!” erupted. Yet Ali was doing what he does so magnificently, chipping away at Frazier’s psychology with every shuffle, every jab, every wind up. On it went!In the final round, Frazier had worn down Ali — at at last he got the desired effect from that brutal left hand. He connected cleanly. Ali fell straight on his back. That clip has lived for 50 years, and the magnitude of that moment still lives on in the annals of all-time great moments in sport. Ali got up by the count of three, but the fight had been decided. Frazier would retain the heavyweight title in a fight that lived up to billing. It truly was “The Fight of the Century,” and 50 years later that date — March 8, 1971 — lives on as the night greatness was defined.