The day boxing's 'mothership' landed

Forty years ago Tuesday, hours before the bell rang for "The Fight of the Century," Muhammad Ali and his trainer, Angelo Dundee, paced around the empty arena at Madison Square Garden, counting the seats.

Back then, weigh-ins took place on the morning of the fight; under normal circumstances, both fighters would stand on the scale, get dressed, walk across the street to the hotel where they were staying and then return to the Garden to prepare for the contest.

But these were not normal circumstances.

"The arena was completely surrounded by humanity," Dundee recalled. "Joe Frazier left, and he could walk right through them; they wouldn't bother him. But my guy, they wouldn't let loose. So I told [Ali friend and adviser] Drew Brown: 'Go back to the hotel, get all the equipment and bring it back. We're going to stay here.' We never left the arena. They fed us at the Sporting Club there. I let him lay down on the rub-down table. And we walked around the arena to walk off the food."

"It was chock-a-block," said boxing historian Bert Sugar, at that time the publisher of Boxing Illustrated magazine. "Everybody who was anybody was there. They were scalping hundred-dollar tickets for a thousand dollars outside. I saw one lady hold up her hand with her ticket to come in, and somebody grabbed it from her and ran. There were people coming in with white ermine coats and matching hats, and that was just the guys. Limousines lined up at Madison Square Garden for what seemed like 50 blocks."

Helping feed the frenzy in the buildup to the clash was the Garden's brilliant public relations man, John Condon, who took full advantage of Ali's willingness to engage in prefight hype.

"John Condon was a great PR guy. He was fantastic, but he had us doing everything except shining shoes on the street corner," Dundee said, chuckling. "The Poetry Society wanted to talk to us. The UFO Society wanted to talk to us. [Ali had once claimed to see a UFO when jogging in Central Park.] It was a joy, but let me tell you, that final week in New York was hazardous. We had people around us every minute of the day. Imagine going to Central Park and all the UFO people were there, wanting to talk to him: the mothership, the mothership. There was supposedly a mothership circling the Earth, and they wanted to talk to him about it."

At one point, Condon even hatched a plan for Ali to announce that he would be running for president in 1976. Ali loved the idea, but the idea was nixed by the Nation of Islam on the grounds that none of its members, including Ali, were allowed to run for public office -- or even pretend to for publicity purposes.

By the time the fight was ready to begin, the atmosphere in the arena was electric and unprecedented in the amount of celebrity attention it had attracted.

"There was Frank Sinatra shooting photographs for Life magazine," Sugar said. "There was Burt Lancaster doing commentary for closed circuit, because [the fight's promoter] Jerry Perenchio was his agent. Diana Ross was in the row down from me. Former vice president Hubert Humphrey was in the third row of the balcony. And you couldn't even hear the introductions for all the screaming and hollering."

Frazier, the defending champion, was a 7-5 favorite over Ali, who had looked unexceptional the previous year in his first two bouts since returning from an enforced 3&frac12;-year fistic exile for refusing induction into the armed forces. But in the early going, it was "The Greatest" who held the upper hand.

"The early rounds were all Muhammad," Dundee said. "He taunted the guy. He was playing with the guy early, patting him on the head and everything. I was giving him hell."

But Frazier would prove a relentless force, barreling forward, backing Ali to the ropes, ripping his trademark left hooks to Ali's body and head. On this night, even Ali's taunting, which had bedeviled Frazier during the buildup, had met its match.

"God wants you to lose," Ali said during a clinch.

"Tell your God he's in the wrong house tonight," Frazier said, resuming his assault.

The fight was in the balance until a crunching Frazier left hook staggered Ali in the 11th -- although "Smokin' Joe" may not have immediately realized the extent to which he had hurt his foe.

"Ali was playing to the house so much that when Frazier hurt him in the 11th round and his legs wobbled, Frazier thought he was fooling him," Sugar said.

"I don't know how he survived that 11th round, I swear to God," Dundee said.

Survive Ali did, and he even managed to stage a rally in the 14th, but another crunching hook dropped him in the final round. Although Ali hauled himself to his feet, Frazier had secured the win.

Ali and Frazier would meet twice more, their trilogy concluding in a stifling indoor arena in the Philippines, Ali prevailing after 14 rounds in what may well have been the greatest heavyweight fight of all time.

As an event, however, nothing since has touched their first contest.

There are multiple reasons March 8, 1971, plays such a memorable role in boxing history. The fight involved two undefeated heavyweight champions, of course, one of whom was perhaps the most electrifying and polarizing personality in the history of professional sports. But more importantly were the broader social issues, the schisms in the country over civil rights and the conflict in Vietnam that for 59 minutes were played out in proxy by two men -- one of whom was the draft-refusing Muslim convert and one of whom was supported by "the establishment" simply because he was not -- in the center of a ring in midtown Manhattan.

It is difficult to conceive of a scenario today in which a fight could possibly assume such immense societal significance. Dundee, whose legendary 5th Street Gym in Miami recently reopened, chuckles as he imagines the one situation that could possibly eclipse that night 40 years ago.

"I'm looking for the green man that comes from Mars and challenges for the title," he said with a laugh. "I want to handle that sucker."