Book excerpt: 'Ali: A Life'

Joe Frazier, right, celebrates as referee Arthur Mercante separates him from Muhammad Ali at the end of their world heavyweight championship on March 8, 1971, in New York City. Robert Riger/Getty Images

Two authors who have written extensively about Muhammad Ali were honored with ESPN-sponsored literary awards in New York City this week. Jonathan Eig received the PEN/ESPN Literary Sports Writing Award for his book titled "Ali: A life." Dave Kindred, author of nearly a dozen books, was given the PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing. Kindred wrote "Sound and Fury," a biography about Ali and sportscaster Howard Cosell.

In receiving the PEN/ESPN honor, Eig remarked, "If Ali were here, I think he would say something like what he said 50 years ago. 'I am America. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black. Confident. Cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals. My own. Get used to me.'

"Well, some people are still not used to it. Some people, including the man in the White House, are not used to black athletes speaking their minds and using their muscle to push for change. Some people are still not used to Muslims as Americans. Some people are still not used to the notion that protest is an act of patriotism. Stories like the story of Muhammad Ali have power. Stories unite us. Stories create compassion. Stories can knock out hate and stories can change the world. Get used to it."

Below is an excerpt from a chapter titled "Ali v. Frazier" in Eig's best-selling book.

The crowd was multicultural before anyone used the term, an explosion of pride, a funk fashion show, a drug-addled parade of ego and power. Everyone was there, and those who weren't lied and said they were. Among those verifiably in attendance and breathing the same stale Madison Square Garden air were Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, the Apollo 14 astronauts, Sammy Davis Jr., Colonel Harlan Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, Hugh Hefner, Barbi Benton (who was Hefner's date, and wearing a see-through blouse under a monkey-fur coat), Hubert Humphrey, Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Miles Davis, Dustin Hoffman, Diana Ross (in black velvet hot pants), Ethel Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, Mayor John Lindsay, Burt Bacharach, Sargent Shriver, William Saroyan, and Marcello Mastroianni. Bing Crosby settled for a seat at the sold-out Radio City Music Hall, where he would watch via closed circuit.

Earlier in the evening, Ali's brother, Rahman, had his eighth fight as a professional. Rahman had never been beaten, but he had never fought an opponent of any consequence either. In the Garden, before the biggest fight of his brother's career, Rahman took his first loss, a bad beating from an English fighter named Danny McAlinden.

Then it was time. Time for The Fight. A thing so immense as to overload the senses of those in Madison Square Garden who watched the fighters march to the ring. Ali arrived first, wearing a red velvet robe, red trunks, and white shoes with red tassels. Frazier wore a green-and-gold brocade robe with matching trunks. Both men were in excellent physical shape. Television producers had gone over every detail, even helping the men select the colors of their trunks, with a darker color chosen to contrast Ali's lighter skin, and lighter-colored trunks for Frazier's darker-toned skin. Ali danced around the ring during the introductions, dipping in close to Frazier and calling out to him: "Chump!" Frazier showed no interest.

As the referee gave instructions, Ali jawed at Frazier and Frazier jawed back.

The opening of a fight, [American novelist Norman] Mailer wrote, "is equivalent to the first kiss in a love affair." But it's more like the first missile in a war. In either case, the opening punches in Ali v. Frazier missed their mark. Ali threw jabs and flurries. Frazier ducked, his head moving as fast as his fists, and steamed forward, trying to push through Ali's jabs. Ali backed up and threw more jabs, but Frazier's head was always moving and seldom where Ali expected to find it. Ali stung like a bee but didn't float like a butterfly. He didn't float at all. It was obvious right away that he wasn't trying to tire Frazier; he was trying to hurt him, to disconnect Frazier's synapses, the sooner the better. Ali stood flat-footed and threw jabs followed by flashing hooks, trying to capitalize on his big advantage in height and reach, and trying to end the fight quickly. Joe stayed low, something he had worked on for long hours under Eddie Futch's watch. In the gym, they'd stretched ropes across the ring and Frazier had practiced ducking them, bobbing, punching, bobbing, punching, hundreds, thousands of times. Now, he bobbed and punched and barreled forward, firing punches as he moved.

Ali won the first two rounds on points, landing more shots than Frazier. But when the third round opened, Frazier smiled, waving for Ali to come out and fight. Frazier threw hooks to the head and body, still shoving his way forward. Every time Frazier landed a thumping blow, Ali would shake his head vigorously, signaling to the crowd that the punch hadn't bothered him. At the end of the round, Ali returned to his corner and stood tall, declining a seat, showing Frazier he wasn't tired. Ali was acting like a kid on a playground sticking out his tongue and taunting his enemy, but the enemy in this case didn't seem to care.

Boxing fans were surprised to see Ali fighting Frazier's fight, standing toe-to-toe and exchanging punches instead of dancing and jabbing. Ali was fighting as if he believed his own hype ​-- ​as if he believed that he was so much bigger and stronger now that he no longer needed to rely on speed. Frazier's eyes puffed. His mouth filled with blood. But he kept coming, kept snarling. Even Ali's punishing left jab didn't stop Frazier. He took his share, but every so often he managed to slip under one of the jabs and throw his money shot, the left hook.

Ali had predicted a sixth-round knockout, but by the sixth round Frazier was going strong, and Ali showed signs of fatigue. He wrapped his arms around Frazier's neck, leaned against the ropes, and brushed his hands lightly back and forth across Frazier's face like a man painting a fence. In the seventh and eighth, he did more of the same, resting and perhaps trying to sap Frazier's will by pretending he could go on this way all night, that the ropes were his hammock, a nice place to unwind for a while until he was ready to go back to work. Throughout the bout, Ali taunted Frazier, telling him he couldn't win.

"Don't you know I'm God!" he shouted.

"God, you're in the wrong place tonight," Frazier shot back. "Be somewhere else, not here. I'm kicking butt and taking names!"

The ninth round was shockingly violent, Ali's gloves caroming off Frazier's rocklike head, Frazier returning fire with uppercuts that made Ali's whole body rise and fall. Both men threw their strongest punches and landed them. Frazier's whole face grew lumpy, as if it had recently been inserted in a beehive. The crowd was on its feet. If the fight had ended there, Ali probably would have won on points. If Ali could have kept fighting this way, he would have knocked Frazier out or won a unanimous decision. But he couldn't keep it up. He had emptied his tank.

In the eleventh, instead of attacking, Ali backed off. He not only leaned on the ropes again but beckoned Frazier to move in close and hit him, the equivalent of a mobile home beckoning a tornado. "What is he doing?" asked José Torres, the former light-heavyweight champ. "Is he punchy? He had the fight won in the final seconds of the tenth, and now he's spoiling it."

Frazier accepted Ali's invitation to punch, leaving his feet to throw a chin-rattling left hook and following it with a mean left to the body. They were punches that Ali once would have avoided, but this time, if his mind was telling him to move, his body wasn't answering. Ali's knees buckled, and he tried to find his balance. He looked like he was going down, wounded like he had never been wounded in his professional career. But, somehow, he recovered and kept his feet on the ground. He had a phrase for this feeling of semiconsciousness. He called it the "half-dream room." He described it once: "A heavy blow takes you to the door of this room. It opens, and you see neon, orange and green lights blinking. You see bats blowing trumpets, alligators play trombones, and snakes are screaming. Weird masks and actors' clothes hang on the wall. The first time the blow sends you there, you panic and run, but when you wake up you say, 'Well, since it was only a dream, why didn't I play it cool ... Only you have to fix it in your mind and plan to do it long before the half-dream comes ... The blow makes your mind vibrate like a tuning fork. You can't let your opponent follow up. You got to stop the fork from vibrating."

Ali was in the half-dream room. At the bell, his corner men threw water in his face before he got to his stool, trying to snap him out of it. Bundini Brown pointed a finger and shouted, "You got God in your corner, Champ!" The referee, Arthur Mercante, came over to see if the fighter needed a doctor. He was persuaded to let the fight continue.

Ali came out moving in the twelfth as if to test his legs. Frazier pummeled him again. Ali fought back, but it was clear he had strength enough to fight only in flurries, not for an entire round. In the thirteenth, Ali started strongly again, moving with agility. He scored points by landing jabs, but he never hurt Frazier. After about a minute of playing the aggressor, Ali returned to the ropes, and Frazier, seeing an opportunity, exploded, connecting with an extraordinary forty-six punches. With bloody saliva dripping from his swollen lips and his face a mask of grotesque bruises, Frazier lashed out, throwing punches with the full force of his body and landing almost every one. If Ali's rope strategy had worked, if it had allowed him to regain energy while his opponent lost steam, he might have been hailed once more for his fistic genius. But it wasn't working at all. For Frazier, it was as if Ahab had discovered his great white whale lying on the beach and waiting to be carved up. Frazier punched, punched, punched, working the body, working the head, striking at will. He planted himself practically inside Ali's navel and stayed there, so that Ali couldn't see anything but the top of the shorter man's head. Frazier was so close that Ali couldn't extend his arms to strike back even if he'd wanted to. The more Frazier hurled punches, the more Ali assumed the stationary position of a punching bag. His jaw began to swell like a brown balloon, prompting concern in his corner that it had been broken.

Ali mustered one last reserve of strength and fought gamely in the fourteenth. But now both men were exhausted. It was a wonder either one of them could stand, much less punch and be punched. Ali, who liked to call himself the most scientific boxer in the history of the sport, may have been reconsidering, because this contest was anything but scientific. This was a bloody brawl. This was hell.

The men touched gloves to begin the fifteenth and final round. The bright overhead lights cast ugly shadows over both their swollen faces. The air reeked of sweat and smoke. Even the crowd was exhausted, but they were on their feet and screaming for more.

Ali came out dancing, as if to tell the world he was still strong, still fast, not yet done. He opened with a left that shot a spray of blood from Frazier's mouth. Frazier hammered a few blows to Ali's gut that made it clear he wasn't done either, and then grabbed Ali in a clinch. They broke and circled. Frazier moved forward, as he had the whole fight. Ali retreated. Frazier reached back with his left -- ​reached all the way back, as he would say later, to the hot turnip fields of South Carolina, to his childhood days of poverty and hate ​-- ​and let fly a left hook. Perspiration sprayed from Ali's head as the punch made impact. Ali's head jolted. His eyes closed, his mouth opened, and his legs folded. He landed on his back and elbows, head bouncing on the mat, legs flailing in the air.

Unbelievably, though, Ali got up.

He got up as soon as his body hit the mat.

He got up and resumed fighting.

Later, Angelo Dundee would say that Ali was out cold as he fell and regained consciousness when his ass hit the floor, which is exactly how it looked. When Frazier hit Ali with the left hook, it shook Ali's brain, causing brain cells to stretch and tear, and temporarily disrupting cell function and communication. Hooks do more damage to brain tissue than jabs because the neck helps absorb the impact of a punch that comes straight toward the face. When a punch comes from the side, the head rotates and rocks, the neck offers less help in blunting the force, and the whole brain shakes like Jell-O. That explains why Ali fell. What it doesn't explain is how he got up, and how he did it so quickly ​-- ​before the referee could count four. A solid blow to the head can damage the brain's axons (the long, thin branches that transmit signals throughout the nervous system), and complete recovery might take weeks, months, or never come at all. But Ali rose and stayed on his feet and battled for the last two and a half minutes of the fight, as 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden and 300 million around the world screamed.

Was it courage that carried them? Was it neurology? Was it hubris overriding physiology? The men fought on until, finally, the bell rang and the referee stepped between them, signaling the end of one of the most intense and best-fought boxing matches in history. Fans swarmed the ring as Frazier was announced the winner by a unanimous decision.