When Ali-Frazier made America choose sides

Fifty years ago, a boxing match captivated the world

A boxing match held the collective attention of the world 50 years ago when Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought for the first time.

There had been previous fights that transcended the sport. The first was on July 4, 1910, between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries. Johnson was the first Black heavyweight champion and Jeffries, who had retired undefeated, was pressured to make a comeback as the Great White Hope. The second was between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling on June 22, 1938, where more than 70 million people listened to the radio broadcast, the largest audience in history. It was a rematch of the ’36 bout, when Schmeling defeated Louis to become a Nazi hero on the eve of World War II.

But no sporting event received the hype, worldwide attention, political debate or even the racial divide within the Black community, as the Ali-Frazier fight on March 8, 1971.

It was a bout called the “Fight of the Century,” not only because it matched two undefeated heavyweight champions for the first time, but because of what the fight symbolized beyond the ring.

“The fight carried a tremendous weight because of everything that was at stake,” said Larry Merchant, who covered the fight for the New York Post. “It was what Frazier and Ali represented to people socially at the time, whether it was the civil rights effort or the anti-Vietnam [War] effort.”

Ali represented the counterculture of the decade, while Frazier, maybe unfairly, represented the establishment. The country had to choose sides.

“It meant nothing for boxing,” said longtime boxing writer Jerry Izenberg. “It meant everything for America.”

Muhammad Ali (left, born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. before his conversion to Islam) with Malcolm X (right) after Ali beat Sonny Liston in 1964.

Bob Gomel/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

Ali (formerly Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.) had ascended as a larger-than-life figure in sports and pop culture in the ‘60s. He brought trash-talking and freestyle rhyming to boxing that was rare in sports. He possessed quick feet and blazing hand speed, usually reserved for fighters in lighter divisions. He shocked the world in ’64 when he won the heavyweight title over the heavily favored Sonny Liston.

He had also become friends with Malcolm X and joined the Nation of Islam. And while he continued to successfully defend his title, a more pressing battle developed. Ali joined an emerging youth movement that opposed the ongoing war in Vietnam.

In an early interview, Ali told reporters he would not fight in any unjust war. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he said. Ali’s opposition was based on his religious beliefs about not participating in wars on the side of non-Muslims. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., a Christian, publicly supported Ali’s stance.

In April 1967, Ali declined to step forward at an Armed Forces Entrance station in Houston, citing his religious beliefs as a Muslim minister. It was a risk, because Ali faced five years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine for his felony offense of refusing to register for the military draft.

Shortly after Ali’s refusal, the World Boxing Association and New York State Athletic Commission suspended his license and stripped him of his title. All other state commissions followed suit. All of this was done and Ali had yet to be convicted of a crime.

A conviction would come in June, and Ali spent ’67, ’68 and ’69 in court appealing it. Meanwhile, his source of income came from the speaking circuit at various colleges around the country, which attracted even more support for his refusal to join the military.

The boxing world did not stop while Ali was in exile. His lawyer Bob Arum promoted a tournament with eight of the top boxers. One particular fighter held out of the tournament on the advice of his trainer, choosing to fight lesser opponents and wait for the tournament champion in Jimmy Ellis.

That fighter was Joe Frazier, who won a gold medal in the ’64 Olympics despite a broken thumb.

Frazier rose from humble beginnings, the son of sharecroppers in South Carolina. As a teenager, he moved north and eventually took up boxing.

Frazier’s aggressive style in the ring was popular among traditional boxing fans as he began his career with 10 consecutive knockouts. He won the New York State Athletic Commission title in 1968 and defeated Ellis in 1970 to win Ali’s vacated belt.

Frazier was the complete opposite of Ali. He didn’t speak out or have the support of the counterculture like Ali did. All the while, boxing fans wanted to see a fight between Frazier and Ali, not knowing if it would ever happen. But Arum and other forces kept pushing.

Black politicians and power brokers stepped up when it was found that Georgia didn’t have a state boxing commission and no rules governing boxing. That meant Ali could return if one of the cities in Georgia licensed the fight and got it approved by the mayor.

Political leaders in Atlanta got a license and Ali returned to the ring in 1970, defeating Jerry Quarry. He followed that victory with another over Oscar Bonavena two months later. Those victories set the stage for the fight fans had craved.

Ali and Frazier signed in December 1970 for a record $2.5 million each to meet three months later in Madison Square Garden. It would be the first bout between two undefeated heavyweight champions because Ali never lost his title in the ring.

The guarantee was the most money for one night of work in sports history. According to Arum, the previous high in boxing was close to $1 million by either Jack Dempsey or Louis.

“And no fighter, up to that point, received any guarantees,” Arum said. “Previously, a champion would get 50% of the gate, the challenger 20% and the promoter 30%.”

This fight was unprecedented. Preparing for it was different in many ways.

Arum was among several boxing promoters left out when Hollywood agent Jerry Perenchio teamed up with Jack Kent Cooke, who owned the Los Angeles Lakers and the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings and was a partner in the NFL’s Washington Redskins. Cooke agreed to put up $4.5 million of the $5 million guarantee. Madison Square Garden financed the remaining $500,000.

Perenchio, president of Chartwell Artists, was responsible for the closed-circuit broadcast of the fight. He hired Black filmmaker William Greaves to direct and produce a feature documentary on the event and assigned Neal Marshall, a 28-year-old television producer, to produce the closed-circuit broadcast. Before pay-per-view, closed-circuit was a system where an event — in this case boxing — was televised by cable and shot on a larger screen. The first closed-circuit boxing event took place in 1951, when Louis fought Lee Savold at the old Garden. It was aired to eight outlets around the country.

The Ali-Frazier closed-circuit affair was on a monumental scale. It would not only broadcast nationally, but to various outlets around the world, which presented several challenges.

“Closed-circuit was technically bad, the equipment was awful and the projectors weren’t good,” Marshall said. “There was a real possibility that many of the operations were going to fail, so insurance had to be put in place so people could get their money back.”

Marshall also faced the challenge of creating the best picture with his version of color correction. For example, the picture would blow out on certain angles when two African American fighters were in the ring on a white ring surface. Marshall’s solution was to swap out the ring surface with light gray. But he needed to experiment. He visited trainer Gil Clancy’s gym in New York.

“We wanted to run a rehearsal, so I tell Clancy that I need one fighter with Ali’s skin tone and one who has Frazier’s skin tone,” Marshall said. “He asked if I was in the painting business. And then he says, ‘You guys who are the darkest, line up here, you lighter guys line up over there.’ ”

The broadcast was so detailed that Ali was encouraged to wear red trunks instead of his customary white, because it would have caused a glare. Frazier wore bright green trunks to provide a better visual against his dark skin.

Perenchio also had to deal with another issue: Singer James Taylor was scheduled to perform at Madison Square Garden on the same date as the fight. They made a deal.

“We got tickets in exchange to move our date,” said Taylor’s manager Peter Asher. “That fight was a big deal at the time. We knew Ali was so cool and famous. We were excited to attend the fight in ideal conditions because we sat close.”

All 20,455 seats in Madison Square Garden were sold more than a month before the fight. Tickets ranged from $20 in the upper level to $150 ringside. The previous high for a ringside seat was $100. It produced a record indoor gate of $1,352,961. More than 350 closed-circuit venues were sold out in the states. Closed-circuit tickets ranged from $5 to $25 per person.

The demand around the world was even more intense, with 50 countries purchasing the event. According to author Michael Arkush in his book The Fight of the Century, the streets in Buenos Aires, Argentina, were deserted the night of the fight, and millions watched on TV in northern Italy. In Manila, Philippines, according to Arkush, children brought their televisions to school, with classes suspended for the duration of the fight.

There was so much interest that Philadelphia Daily News columnist Jack McKinney, who was in Belfast, Northern Ireland, reporting on the conflict between the Provisional IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army, said in an interview in the documentary Ali-Frazier I: One Nation … Divisible: “The feud ended as quickly as it began, and one of the reasons was that the Frazier-Ali fight was coming on television, and nobody was going to be out in the street gunning for somebody else when that fight was coming on.”

A cloud was lifted six weeks before the fight when the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would review Ali’s case in April. The possibility of the match getting canceled for legal challenges was gone.

With interest at an all-time high, there wasn’t much room to promote the fight, but Ali pushed. And he crossed the line with his verbal assault of Frazier, calling him “The Gorilla.”

“Ali didn’t leave very much space for Frazier,” said sociologist Harry Edwards. “When you throw in some of the less fortunate characterizations by calling Frazier a gorilla, which was historically racist, it turned into an ugly scene and came to carry a much greater burden, where nobody could come to one side and be comfortable.”

Which was unfair to Frazier, because it was Frazier who went before the New York boxing commission hoping Ali could get reinstated. And it was Frazier who loaned Ali money when he wasn’t allowed to fight.

So the name-calling came off as ungrateful and unfortunate. Even Frazier’s children felt his pain.

“I was told Marvis [Frazier’s son] would come home crying because he had to fight kids that called his dad a gorilla,” said Izenberg, author of Once There Were Giants: The Golden Age of Heavyweight Boxing.

But various segments of the Black community still chose sides. If you supported Ali, you were with the Black Power movement and the anti-war crowd. If you supported Frazier, you were accused of being pro-establishment. Or worse.

“Black guys were afraid to say they liked Joe Frazier because they’d be afraid to be called ‘Uncle Toms,’ ” Izenberg said. “Ali turned Frazier into a white fighter. Guys who hated Ali had even more reason to root against him.”

Nathan McCall, author, lecturer and professor at Emory University, said Ali symbolized Black masculinity and Black resistance.

“Black folks really got into Ali because of that,” McCall said. “He came to represent the Black defiance so powerfully that anybody he got into the ring with, Black or white, represented the white [establishment].”

Famed singer Frank Sinatra was part of the media as a photographer for the Ali-Frazier fight in 1971.

Bettmann/Getty Images

The night of the fight at Madison Square Garden was a spectacle. There were more than 600 members of the media, including famed singer Frank Sinatra, who guaranteed himself a close view of the action as a photographer for Life magazine. Actor Burt Lancaster, who had no experience, did the color commentary for the closed-circuit broadcast. Perenchio hired his friend Lancaster because he wanted to make sure the event was star-studded.

The place was oozing celebrity: Bill Cosby, Diana Ross, Miles Davis, Barbra Streisand, Woody Allen, Duke Ellington, Sugar Ray Robinson, Colonel Sanders (of Kentucky Fried Chicken) and even gangster Frank Lucas (portrayed by Denzel Washington in American Gangster) were all there.

Cars and limos were double- and tripled-parked around the arena. That’s where the fashion show began. Mink coats and mink hats were the norm. And that was the men.

“It was an exciting night,” said former New York Knicks great Walt Frazier, who remembers wearing a black mink coat. “You got chill bumps from the adrenaline inside of the Garden, even more than when Willis Reed [limped onto the court for Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals].”

After five preliminary fights, including one in which Ali’s brother Rahman lost by decision, the event finally arrived.

“It was the most live, live event I ever attended,” Merchant recalled. “There was a cascade of sound that seemed to come down every aisle during the fight. We used to say that there was no Eskimo and no igloo on the planet that didn’t know the fight was happening.”

An estimated 300 million people watched the fight.

There was so much attention on the fight that it provided cover for a burglary that changed history. At the start of the fight, another monumental event took place in a small town 22 miles west of Philadelphia. Eight activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and stole files that revealed illegal spying operations led by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Some of those names included King Jr. and Ali. The activists purposely chose the night of the Ali-Frazier bout because the attention drawn to fight updates on radio and television would serve as a distraction.

In the book The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, author Betty Medsger wrote how the distraction of the fight helped the burglars walk away with more than 1,000 documents, including one that revealed the FBI’s secret COINTELPRO operations that sent innocent people to prison, plans to murder a member of the Black Panthers and disinformation about anti-war activists.

The revelations led to congressional investigations and reforms of all intelligence agencies.

While the FBI was getting robbed, Ali and Frazier had begun their assault on each other in the ring. It was the classic battle, the boxer in Ali against the slugger in Frazier.

Ali dominated the first three rounds with his razor jab followed by stiff rights. Frazier closed the distance in the middle rounds behind his infamous left hook. On occasion, Frazier pinned Ali against the ropes and nailed him with body shots.

This was clearly not the same Ali before the layoff.

“It was so unusual to see Ali get hit with those punches, and that added to the drama,” Merchant said. “But Ali landed more clean shots. Ali danced and Joe gave as serious an effort as you ever saw.”

Frazier staggered Ali with a left hook in the 11th. The next three rounds remained close, but Frazier closed the show with a left hook that put Ali on the canvas in the 15th. Ali, now with his jaw swollen, recovered and got up at the count of four.

Joe Frazier knocks Muhammad Ali down in the 15th round at Madison Square Garden.

NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Frazier would win by unanimous decision.

“Nothing compares to that fight,” Walt Frazier said. “I remember how the entire crowd just stood and remained in the arena well after the fight was over. We couldn’t believe what we just saw.”

Neither could Joe Frazier’s daughter Weatta. Her father’s face was swollen and nearly disfigured as a result of Ali’s punches.

“You’d hear little stories in the house about how daddy won,” said Weatta, who was 7 years old that year. “[I wondered] are you sure daddy won, because his face didn’t look like it.”

Ali also suffered. The body shots left him in pain, and his swollen jaw, which was not broken, was a reminder of the events in the ring.

“I’ll never forget walking into Ali’s dressing room after the fight with Jerry [Perenchio],” Marshall said. “Ali’s sitting on his table and Diana Ross was holding on to his leg hysterical. Ali looks up and says, ‘Diana, this is my man Jerry Perenchio, who gave me $2.5 million to get my ass kicked.’ ”

Perenchio and Cooke were also big winners, making a profit of nearly $20 million, according to Arum.

The fight established just how powerful a live broadcast would be in boxing. It wasn’t long before the networks started showing boxing as standard sports fare. Closed-circuit led to pay-per-view and the unprecedented guarantee of $2.5 million each for Ali and Frazier led to larger purses for fighters.

Muhammad Ali poses as he taunts Joe Frazier before the official news conference on Jan. 17, 1974, in New York.

The Ring Magazine via Getty Images

That summer in Ali’s most important fight, the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 in his favor to clear him of the ’67 draft evasion charges.

Ali would win his next two fights against Frazier, in a unanimous decision in their rematch at the Garden in 1974, and in an epic bout titled the “Thrilla in Manila” in 1975.

Frazier’s bitterness toward Ali’s name-calling lasted for decades, even after things were eventually resolved.

“But Joe was bitter in a lot of ways, and when they were at an event and Ali began to stumble because of Parkinson’s, Frazier said he did that to him,” Edwards said. “Joe was bitter and I understood.”

Frazier died on Nov. 7, 2011, from liver cancer. Ali died due to septic shock on June 3, 2016.

The two heavyweights will forever be linked. Their first meeting remains a defining moment in societal history.

Plenty of Ali’s detractors celebrated when Frazier got the decision in that first fight in Madison Square Garden. Ali’s supporters were crushed.

“I cried my eyes out and I’m sure most people did,” said HBO’s Bryant Gumbel on the documentary Ali-Frazier I: One Nation … Divisible. “We were so certain that we were right to support Ali, that you were right to oppose the war, and the cause of civil rights was just. And when he lost it was almost like, we can’t be on the wrong side of things, we can’t be.”

McCall also suffered, but found strength.

“I teared up when he lost,” McCall said. “But those of us who supported him stood even stronger in defeat, because as Black people, we’re accustomed to getting up and fighting another day. That’s what Ali represented.”

Branson Wright is a filmmaker and freelance multimedia sports reporter.