The money was huge — a cool $2.5 million apiece — and so was the stage for Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Their first fight at Madison Square Garden was so epic it was billed as the Fight of the Century, and 50 years later it reigns undefeated.
Frazier was the unbeaten heavyweight champion, a short cannonball of a fighter with a left hook that could knock out an elephant. Ali was, well, Ali even if Frazier insisted on calling him (Cassius) Clay as he fought his way back into condition after being banned from boxing for more than three years for refusing the Vietnam draft.
The stars and the star-struck came in their finest to watch on a Monday night in Manhattan. It was March 8, 1971, and those crowding their way into the Garden were attired in the fashion of the day, which included full length fur coats, velvet pants and peacock feathered hats — and that was just the men. There were also plenty of fashionably attired women in miniskirts or long flowing gowns, with enough skin and hair on both sexes to make the crowd watching as good as the fight.
At ringside, Frank Sinatra had a camera in his hand, chronicling the scene for Life magazine. There were Kennedys in the building, along with celebrities of the day like Diana Ross and Woody Allen. The moonwalkers from Apollo 14 were on hand, too, still bearded from their trip to space.
“Anybody who was anybody was there,” said Gene Kilroy, who was Ali’s longtime business manager. “If you weren’t there, you weren’t anybody.”
Frazier was a relentless puncher filled with rage toward a fighter who couldn’t help but belittle him. Ali was a bit rusty in just his third fight into a comeback, but he was already The Greatest — and his fans couldn’t imagine him losing for the first time in his career, to Frazier or anyone else.
Before the fight they traded taunts and insults that went beyond the usual fight promotion, a match that Ali won easily as usual. Ali had no shortage of things to say about his rival, who he said was so ugly “his face should be donated to the bureau of wildlife.”
“Joe Frazier will be a punching bag,” Ali said on the eve of the fight. “Frazier don’t even look like a heavyweight champion — too short.”
Frazier was a slight 6-5 favorite in a fight that captivated both the nation and the world. Not only were the fighters making money that seemed insane at the time, but the fight itself was expected to bring in anywhere from $20 million to $30 million once all the proceeds were tallied.
It played at 370 closed-circuit locations across the nation, including an outdoor show at the sparkling new Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, where fans sat in 17-degree Fahrenheit (minus-8 degrees Celsius) temperatures to watch on a floppy screen set up in the infield. Fire hoses were turned on a crowd at Chicago’s International Amphitheater, where 1,000 fans grew unruly when they were turned away from the sold-out theater, while in Duluth, Minnesota, people had to be content to listen to the fight because there was no picture.
Seats at ringside were a staggering $150, though the upper reaches of the Garden could be had for $20. There were reports that ticket scalpers were getting up to $700, and business was brisk.
Source: Associated Press – TIM DAHLBERG