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Silver: St. Valentine's Day Massacre
Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Where Were You on March 8, 1971?
By Michael Silver
Special to ESPN Classic
It was advertised simply as "THE FIGHT." No other words were necessary. The stupendous Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier showdown of March 8, 1971 was perhaps the most anticipated event in all of sports history.
It was a match between two great undefeated heavyweight champions that by itself would have been enough to capture the attention of millions of fans. But it was the added dimensions of politics, religion, race, and ego
It was an event that transcended sport.
Boxing, in its naked violently simplistic mano á mano way, was the perfect metaphor. To the masses Frazier and Ali had come to represent more than themselves.
It all began innocently enough. Ali, fighting under his given name of Cassius Clay, had won the Olympic light heavyweight title in 1960 and the heavyweight championship of the world at the age of 22 by defeating the seemingly invincible brute Sonny Liston in 1964. Spouting poetry and predicting the round in which his opponents would fall, the brash youngster was colorful, engaging, quick witted, and a master showman.
The self-proclaimed "Greatest" was a boxing phenomenon. He had incredibly fast hands and cat-like reflexes. His handsome face was rarely hit. Clay personified his motto to "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee." The boxing world, indeed the sports world, had never seen anything like him.
But everything changed the day after he won the title. He announced to the world he was a member of the Black Muslims, a hitherto little known black separatist movement that practiced the religion of Islam, espoused self help for the Negro race, and preached that the white man was the devil.
The new champion said that he would no longer be known by his slave name Cassius Clay.
Three weeks later the leader of the sect, Elijah Mohammed, conferred upon Cassius X his new Muslim name -- Muhammad Ali.
Ali, backed by the Black Muslims, was announcing to the world that he was breaking free of the role that had traditionally been assigned to Black heavyweight champions.
Yet, in many ways, Ali never really stopped being Cassius Clay. He could still be funny and creative when promoting his fights just as he was before he won the title. Then again, when preaching Black Muslim dogma, he could be humorless and truculent even to the point of taunting and cruelly punishing black opponents (Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell) who refused to call him by his Muslim name. Boxing's established old guard felt betrayed and angry and hoped that he would soon be dethroned. No such luck. Ali was just too good a fighter. From 1965 to 1967 he defended his title nine times. No challenger ever came close to defeating him. He was proud of his defensive skill, often boasting that no one would ever know if he could take a punch because he did not intend to ever have to prove that he could.
Muhammad Ali, boxer and public figure, had his detractors and his supporters but whatever criticism and controversy he had encountered in the past was nothing compared to what was to come. He was about to be thrust onto a stage much larger than a boxing ring. The turbulent, crazy decade of the 1960s was about to shift into high gear.
In 1967, with the United States fighting a war in Vietnam, Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight champion of the world, refused to step forward and accept induction into the Army. Ali, stating that he was a Muslim minister, claimed conscientious objector status on the grounds that his religion forbade him to participate in a war. It should be understood that there were already hundreds of thousands of Americans doing service in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. Almost 30,000 had already been killed. Ali was denounced as a draft dodger. Several congressmen took the opportunity to vilify him and questioned his patriotism and motives.
Two months later, on June 20, 1967, Ali was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison.
While Ali was free on bail, pending the appeals process, his lawyers tried to restore his boxing license. It was to no avail; Ali was a pariah.
But not to everyone.
The controversial war in Vietnam had created an active anti-war movement comprised mostly of college students. Ali, running low on funds, accepted invitations to speak on college campuses. The defrocked champion may have been barley literate but he certainly was not verbally challenged. His lively lectures were well received. He spoke about his views on race, religious philosophy, and the war. Since the boxing establishment had already started the process of crowning a new heavyweight champion Ali always ended his speeches by asking the audience to tell him who the real heavyweight champion was. He was obviously pleased to hear the familiar chant of "Ali, Ali." The counter culture had a new hero.
The country was split between those supporting our efforts in Vietnam and those opposed to the war. Hawks, doves, hard hats, flower children, black power, Woodstock, Kent State and the silent majority were bywords for the most divisive American decade since the American Civil War some 100 years earlier.
This was also a time of activism and militancy for many black Americans involved in the civil rights movement, especially after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968.
While all this was going on the boxing promoters were conducting a series of tournaments to find a successor to Muhammad Ali.
Rising to the top of the heavyweight heap like some unstoppable force of nature was a human wrecking ball named Joe Frazier. He was one of 13 children born dirt-poor on a farm in rural South Carolina. He had come to Philadelphia as a married 16-year-old and was working in a kosher slaughterhouse when he first took up boxing. As an amateur Joe won three Golden Gloves titles and, in 1964, the Olympic heavyweight championship. Over the next five years, using his feared left hook like a meat cleaver, he knocked out 23 of 26 opponents.
It was a style that was meant to vex a stand-up boxer like Ali.
Frazier was a decent, hardworking, law abiding, church going family man, who was too busy trying to support his growing family to get involved in any causes.
The anti-Ali crowd had found their man, although Joe did not care to be looked upon as a symbol of anything other than who he was.
So impressive was Frazier in victory that many fans thought he had a good chance to defeat Ali on the best day the ex-champion ever saw. Ali instinctively sensed that this was the perfect opponent for him physically and psychologically. And even though he now had been out of the ring over three years he was as confident of victory as was Frazier.
Ali never lost an opportunity to demean and belittle Frazier's ability and insist that he and not some pretender was the real heavyweight champion. Of course it was meant to hype the gate for a possible fight. But try as he might Ali was never able to ruffle Joe's feathers. Smokin' Joe was a cool customer who was happiest and most comfortable beating up opponents. He would silence this braggart in the ring. The stage was being set for an epic confrontation.
It was now the summer of 1970. Ali had not fought in almost 3½ years. Even if he was allowed to come back how much had the layoff affected his magnificent skills?
The world was about to find out.
Through a quirky set of circumstances, helped by a changing political climate and a friendly black state senator, Ali was granted a boxing license in Atlanta, Georgia, of all places. Not wanting to go in against Frazier without some tune-up fights, Ali chose to meet the No. 1 contender, Jerry Quarry, on October 26, 1970 in the 6,000-seat municipal auditorium.
What irony! A controversial black activist and war resister meeting a white opponent in Atlanta, Georgia. It was the biggest night Atlanta had seen since the opening of "Gone With The Wind" some 30 years earlier.
The 28-year-old Ali dominated Quarry for the three rounds the fight lasted until a bad cut over Quarry's left eye forced a stoppage. Although an impressive victory it was too short a fight to evaluate Ali's true condition.
Ali's situation was steadily improving. A New York State Judge ruled that his boxing license had been revoked unfairly and ordered it reinstated. This opened the way for another tune-up fight in New York against top-rated contender Oscar Bonavena.
On December 7th, 1970 in New York's Madison Square Garden, Muhammad Ali knocked out the awkward and very strong Argentinean in the 15th and final round for his 30th straight victory. Up until the spectacular knockout it had been a tough and grueling fight. Boxing people saw that Ali's legs had slowed down and he did not move with the same fluid speed and accuracy that he had before his long layoff. But he did win, was still undefeated, and had three months to prepare for his showdown with Joe Frazier.
The countdown had begun.
The match was set for March 8, 1971 at Madison Square Garden. Each man was guaranteed $2.5 million dollars, the largest single payday for any entertainer or athlete at the time. Tickets to the Garden would be made available to the general public by mail on a first come first served basis. Prices in the arena ranged from $20 for a balcony seat to $150 for ringside. Hundreds of other locations throughout the U.S. and Canada would screen the fight via closed circuit television to fans paying $5 to $15.
Interest in the event was incredible. Radio, television, and the print media were filled with stories discussing the upcoming fight. Tension and anticipation were building by the hour. Few athletic events, be it World Series, Super Bowl or World Cup, had come even close to generating the type of excitement and attention that this prizefight was getting.
Fifty countries had purchased rights to the telecast.
Although oddsmakers made Frazier a slight 6 to 5 favorite Ali's supporters were not perturbed. Their belief in him was total. It went beyond his skill as a boxer. To them he was more than just a boxer-he was a symbol. He could not lose. Ali agreed and predicted that Frazier "will fall in six."
Ali had an 8½-inch advantage in reach, 4-inches in height (6'3" to 5'11") and weighed 215 lbs. to Joe's 205½.
The night of the fight was electric. As the fighters made their way towards the ring hearts pounded and pulses raced. Everyone was on their feet. The Garden, filled to capacity with 20,455 spectators, was brimming with celebrities. But not everyone of note was able to get choice seating. Hubert Humphrey, the ex-vice president of the United States, was sitting in the mezzanine! Frank Sinatra had one of the best seats in the house. He was hired by Life Magazine (although he would gladly have paid them for the privilege) to photograph the fight from the ring apron. The overflow of stars who couldn't get into the Garden, like Bing Crosby, were to be found at Radio City Music Hall whose 6,500 seats had sold out three weeks earlier. Virtually every other closed circuit television location was also filled to capacity.
While both fighters waited for the introductions Ali, gliding around the ring, twice brushed Frazier's shoulder as he moved past him. The crowd reacted with a roar. Frazier glared at Ali contemptuously.
Then the house lights dimmed. The tension was almost unbearable. The fans were still on their feet when the bell rang. The fight was on!
Joe came out bobbing and weaving, edging in towards Ali, trying to get under his jab and land the hook to his body or head. Ali was using his footwork to keep Joe at a distance. But most of his jabs were missing the target as Frazier's head moved quickly to avoid them. Ali seemed surprised by Frazier's speed.
By the third round Ali had come off his toes and was fighting uncharacteristically flatfooted perhaps to save energy. Frazier was setting an incredible pace. He seemed almost maniacal, throwing more punches in one round than most heavyweights throw in an entire fight. But Ali was picking his spots and landing hard counter punches and powerful jabs.
The sixth round came and went and with it Ali's predicted knockout. Frazier laughed derisively at him at the end of the round.
The fight was being fought with a brutal intensity rarely seen in any prizefight. Each man was fighting as if he had a point to prove. This was a genuine grudge match and it was being fought like one.
Ali could not keep up the torrid pace. He was allowing Frazier to pin him against the ropes, something he would never have done in previous fights. It appeared that Ali could no longer move with the old speed and lightness of foot. Even so, as the bell rang for the start of the 11th round, it was still anybody's fight.
Now entering the final round both men were exhausted but still punching.
And then it happened.
Frazier lashed out with another of his countless left hooks only this one landed flush on Ali's exposed jaw. He went down hard, flat on his back, legs in the air. Incredibly Ali bounced up at the count of three and made it to the final bell.
If anyone still had any doubts as to who deserved to win the fight it was settled with that one left hook that dropped Ali for only the third time in his career.
The unanimous decision went to Frazier. He deserved it. But Ali too deserved the accolades due him for a tremendous effort. No one would ever again question his ability to take a punch.
The fight ranks as one of boxing's all-time classics.
EPILOGUE: On June 27, 1971, by a vote of 8-0 (Justice Thurgood Marshall abstaining) the United States Supreme Court cleared Muhammad Ali of the charge that he refused induction into the Armed Forces.
Michael Silver is a boxing historian, media consultant, and journalist whose articles on boxing have appeared in numerous publications including Ring Magazine, Boxing Monthly and the New York Times.
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