Tuesday, March 8, 2011

March 8, 1971: Fight of the Century

NEW YORK - In one corner stood the champion. Undefeated as a professional, he won his fights through agility, endurance, and guile. He may not have been the strongest puncher in the world, but he always found a way to avoid being hit by the big blows and to tire out his opponents with endless jabs.

In the other corner stood the champion. Undefeated as a professional, he won his fights through brute strength. There was nothing fancy or poetic about him. He just punched and punched until you could take no more.

Of course, there was room for only one champion. In the case of the fight on March 8, 1971, that man was Joe Frazier, the pure brawler, the man who took over the mantle of heavyweight champion after Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title for refusing to fight in Vietnam. Five years later, Ali was back, and the public was in store for the most anticipated heavyweight fight in history. Two champions, both undefeated, battling once and for all for heavyweight supremacy.

Part of what made this fight so highly anticipated was the conflicting styles. Ali had won his title as a dancer, so people wondered how he would hold up against the brute force of Frazier's punches. On the flip side, many others wondered if Frazier would ever get to land any of those haymakers, or if Ali would simply wear him down like he had the 31 previous opponents he had faced. And of course, there was the question of how rusty Ali would be after his forced layoff after being stripped of his title. He had fought twice since his return, but he hadn't fought a championship-level fight.

This fight also became about more than just the heavyweight championship. Ali was presented as the champion of the people who had opposed Vietnam and who questioned the government's involvement. Meanwhile, Frazier was the champion of those who supported the war effort.

As the fight began, Ali came out roaring. He completely controlled the first three rounds, using his lightning-quick jabs to harm Frazier and get him wobbly. After three rounds, it looked like Ali would win in a laugher. But in the fourth round, Frazier started to connect with his powerful blows and was able to get Ali pinned against the ropes time and again.

The fight seemed even in the middle rounds, but it was deceiving. In reality, Frazier was taking control of the fight. Ali admitted afterward that he was starting to tire in the sixth round, but the fight remained relatively even until the 11th. Late in that round, with Ali pinned against the ropes, Frazier unleashed a devasating left hook that had Ali staggering; only by leaning against the ropes could Ali stay upright.

Ali survived the 11th, but the fight was realistically over from there. Frazier started to exert more and more control in the final few rounds, taking the lead in all three scorecards. Finally, in the 15th and final round, Frazier knocked Ali to the ground, only the third time Ali had ever hit the canvas. Though Ali got up, the fight was over from there. Frazier retained his championship by unanimous decision, and Ali was handed his first professional loss.

Remarkably, the battle between Frazier and Ali had lived up to all the hype, even exceeded it. It was immediately hailed as one of the greatest boxing matches of all time. But it was just a precursor. Frazier and Ali would fight two more times, and their third and final battle is now considered an even better fight than the first one was. Their personal rivalry remains the greatest in heavyweight boxing history.

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