March 08, 2021
Those old enough know where they were 50 years on this date, Monday, March 8, 1971. It’s one of those indelible moments in sports history, and it involved an event at a time that transcended sports and may never be repeated.
It’s often called the greatest sporting event of the 20th century and though it happened on an illuminated, raised canvas square in the middle of Madison Square Garden in New York City, its roots were firmly entrenched here in Philadelphia.
That’s where Joe Frazier trained — right across the Delaware River from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where Muhammad Ali lived in March 1971.
The two Philadelphia-area guys had the eyes of the world upon them — when boxing was far more relevant than it is now. For the first time in boxing history, Frazier-Ali I brought together two undefeated heavyweight champions fighting for the world championship.
"When I walked into the arena, it was like nothing I ever saw before... It’s like the world stopped. The night belonged to Joe Frazier." —George Foreman
It was also a titanic collision pushed up against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and national racial and political unrest. Regrettably, the two fighters were pinned to the polarizing ideologies of the left and the right, and that’s where the fighters’ fanbases fell.
To those that were there, Frazier-Ali I will forever resonate, far exceeding anything on the world stage of sports like a Super Bowl or World Cup. Over 300 million around the world viewed the fight, when the world was nowhere as connected as it is today.
It was simply called “The Fight." It needed no added hyperbole, and even calling it "The Fight of the Century" might not have been that, as it more than lived up to the billing as a landmark occasion and marked the first time Ali lost.
One of the more iconic moments of the fight came when Ali famously taunted Frazier, “Joe, don’t you know I’m God?” Frazier replied, “God, you’re in the wrong place tonight.”
On Monday, March 8, 1971, wherever you lived, whatever you did, whomever you were, that’s where you wanted to be, with your eyes glued to Frazier-Ali I. Fifty years later, here's how it's remembered by those in the boxing and sports community at large who watched it live, whether in person or squinting through a small TV...
George Foreman, Hall of Fame fighter and two-time heavyweight champion who knocked out Frazier twice, once for the heavyweight title, and lost it to Ali at the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974. Foreman came back to become the oldest heavyweight champion in history when at 45 he knocked Michael Moorer in 1994: “I was sitting ringside that night. I was 23 and coming up. When I walked into the arena, it was like nothing I ever saw before, and I saw some big-time boxing matches before that. I remember Teddy Brenner, who was Madison Square Garden’s matchmaker, came up to me before the fight and said he wanted me to get up in the ring and introduce me. I told him, ‘No you’re not! I’m not going up there with all of these big celebrities here!’ I kept my seat (laughs).
"Frank Sinatra was close to the ring, but the most exciting moment for me pre-fight was seeing Joe Louis with Ash Resnick and they looked like they were stomping the floor as they walked in. Resnick went on to run Caesars Palace later. The night before the fight, I had dinner with Eunice Kennedy, Sargent Schriver’s wife and President (John) Kennedy’s sister. They were so excited, and I remember she reached out to touch my leg, and I remember her saying, ‘What a leg.’ Everyone was talking about boxing. People that you would never expect to talk about boxing. I was dressed sharp and I remember when Ali and Frazier came out. It’s like the world stopped.
"Expressing yourself through the fight was a way of expressing yourself politically and sartorially in every way... Where you stood on the fight is where you stood on things." —Larry Merchant
"The night belonged to Joe Frazier. I was neutral, but I remember thinking, I don’t want to face either of these guys. Everyone from all over the world came to New York that week. I remember seeing Clyde Frazier and Jimmy Brown, and everyone came over to see them. A lot of celebrities didn’t even come to the fight. They just knew New York City was the place to be.
"What stays me with me all of these years later is that knockdown in the 15th round. Joe hit Muhammad so hard, I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember Bundini Brown (Ali’s assistant trainer under Angelo Dundee) throwing a big wave of water and how far it traveled from Ali’s corner. It hit Ali right in the face. That, I’ll never forget. The water flew right across the ring and hit Ali when he was down. It splashed right on Ali’s face and chest and steamed up as soon as it hit him. I’m sure Bundini got fined for that. Ali was jolted by it. That woke up Muhammad. He got up on his feet and finished. I don’t think Ali would have gotten up if Bundini didn’t splash him with that water.
"The world came together that night at of all things a boxing match.”
Larry Merchant, HBO’s Hall of Fame broadcaster who just turned 90 and was the former sports editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, where he hired the legendary Stan Hochman. Merchant at the time of Frazier-Ali I was a New York Post sports columnist: “It was certainly the biggest sports event that I ever covered, because of the tumult and shouting that had gone on prior to the fight. Everyone was choosing up sides long before the event came. Ali represented the new voices heard in the land, the progressive voices, the show biz voices. Not everybody approved of him, and not everyone liked their kids wearing psychedelic clothing and jeans at the time. Expressing yourself through the fight was a way of expressing yourself politically and sartorially in every way. Conservatives didn’t want their kids dressing and sounding that way. The liberals cheered them on.
"Joe couldn’t be classified as a liberal, he was a conservative guy from the South. Ali was a guy who came to dance, and change religion and shout into the night. You had the Vietnam War going on, and you had conservative people on one side of the line, and liberal people standing on the other side of the line. It became a signal of where you should stand on this extraordinary event. Where you stood on the fight is where you stood on things. Joe was a tough street fighter who was as brave as they came.
"I covered Super Bowls. I covered the Olympics. No event was as big as Frazier-Ali I. It was the only time in boxing history when two undefeated champions were fighting for the heavyweight championship. That had a lot to do with Ali being the heavyweight champ and being sidetracked (with his stance on the Vietnam War and refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army), and Joe was the heavyweight champion in a more traditional way. Joe was the third coming of Jack Dempsey and Rocky Marciano. Ali was the first coming of Ali. There had never been a big, quick fighter like Ali. In the fact that Ali was a showman and that he had come to represent the liberal causes, as opposed to conservative ones, he meant something to everyone. It was a worldwide event. I used to say every Eskimo in an igloo knew that fight was happening.
"It was more than just a sporting event. It was a fight for the nation’s conscience as much as it was for the heavyweight championship... There was a feeling that you were coming to just see more than a prize fight." —Ray Didinger
"The fight became that rare great event itself, when the fight exceeds the event. One of the things that I thought would go against Ali early in the fight was that the old-school judges and referees would not look kindly on Ali, with some of his clowning and fast-stepping. They thought all of his acting outside the ring was disrespectful, where a lot of the younger fans were amused by it. I had Ali winning. I call myself, along with a handful of newsmen who had Ali, the astigmatic dunces (laughs). I had no quarrel with the result. Joe won the drama of the fight. No one had ever seen Ali get hit with those kinds of big punches, and they were the kind of dramatic punches where everyone in the arena can see. In my experience, fighters get extra credit for that.
"I don’t know if there were other major events like that before in the Garden, or anything like that since. It was a night filled with crescendo and cascading, throbbing sounds all night long. We’ve all seen big fights. It’s rare the fight turns out bigger than we thought going in. I remember the visceral nature of the punches and counter punches. There were three men in the history of boxing that were built to take a punch: Rocky Marciano, Mike Tyson and Joe Frazier.
"When I was doing fights for HBO, I would summon that feeling of Frazier-Ali I for a big event. But there’s nothing that came close to that.”
Ray Didinger, Hall of Fame football writer and longtime staple of the Philadelphia media who watched the fight on a snowy, closed-circuit screen at the Spectrum: “I was 25 then. I watched it at the Spectrum and it was completely sold out. There was a real sense of tension in the building. It was more than just a sporting event. It was a fight for the nation’s conscience as much as it was for the heavyweight championship, with the political overtones involved. There was a feeling that you were coming to just see more than a prize fight. Everyone kind of felt that what they were about to watch was going to be historic. No one knew how it was going to turn out. That was the pure drama of it.
"We had never seen either of those guys lose. But you’re sitting there and waiting for the fight to start, you knew one of them would lose. It was Philadelphia and I thought it would be a very pro-Frazier crowd. What surprised me was how split the crowd was. If you took a head count, there were more Frazier fans than Ali fans. The Ali fans were louder and more vocal than the Frazier fans. A lot of Frazier fans were older and old-time fight fans. The Ali fans were younger and very into chanting, ‘Ali, Ali, Ali.’ It is still surprising that it was a 50-50 crowd. They showed the fight on a big movie screen and the reception wasn’t very good. I remember thinking the picture was going to go out at any time (laughs).
"It was a very young, white crowd; a lot of college kids and it was 1971, you have to remember. There were all kinds of demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Ali had toured college campuses and appealed to them. I remember the area where I was sitting that there was a whole group of college students. To them, they were against the Vietnam War like Ali. There were a lot of women, too, because Ali attracted women. This was a this-is-the-place-to-be kind of crowd. I was never at a fight like that with that kind of crowd. You felt the build up to it in the pit of your stomach.
"In legend and lore, Ali-Frazier is the benchmark of all boxing rivalries, and I would put it up there among the all-time great rivalries of sports... They’re a part of history, and not just sports, they’re cultural icons." —Bernard Fernandez
"Before any sports event, you have an idea how it’s going to go. But with these two, they never lost. You couldn’t imagine anyone beating Ali. Just like you couldn’t imagine anyone beating Frazier. In terms of anticipation, in terms of drama and expectation, it’s the No. 1 sports event that took place in the 20th century. Ali was larger than life. Joe was a different personality, but he had that same sort of quality about him. They were each in their own way very polarizing. But there’s nothing like the drama of just two guys going at it, which makes boxing far different than football, hockey, or basketball.
"Unfortunately, Ali painted Joe as an ‘Uncle Tom’ figure and Ali was the champion of the oppressed and the anti-war movement. That night, they settled it. It was all about those two and it was global. I wasn’t even in Madison Square Garden and I could feel that tension through the screen. Joe won that fight. I thought Joe was ahead, but when he knocked Ali down in the 15th, that pretty much clinched it. It’s a rare event that actually exceeded the hype—and it exceeded it by a lot. You knew you were glad that you were and it was something that you would remember for a long, long time.”
Bernard Fernandez, Hall of Fame boxing writer and former longtime boxing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News who watched the fight on closed-circuit in Houma, Louisiana: “I was 23 then, and was married with my two sons. I remember wishing I was in New York actually covering the fight. I watched it on closed-circuit by myself with more of a pro-Ali crowd. It was a racially diverse crowd, and given everything that was going on in the country, there were a lot of sociological implications. Vietnam was going on and it was supposed to be ‘The Fight of the Century,’ and I remember it living up to the impossible build-up. We hear all of the hype surrounding big fights, but they hardly live up to the billing. You won’t see an event like that again.
"I covered both men. I got to know both men. I think what will always stay with me that no matter what your position was regarding the situation in the country then, you have to admire the attributes that Muhammad Ali brought to the table. There was no heavyweight before or since that had the physical attributes that Ali had. That’s just a fact. The other side was Joe, who was a completely different type of fighter and his attributes were so diametrically different than Ali’s, that you had to admire Joe, too. As a writer, Joe’s story was also admirable. Joe’s father had driven a truck and had use of one hand. Joe grew up dirt poor, with nothing. Joe was portrayed by Ali as the white-man’s champion, and that was really unnecessary to sell that fight.
"The fact of the matter is they fought three times. The second fight was a good fight, but not as good as the first fight or the third fight. In legend and lore, Ali-Frazier is the benchmark of all boxing rivalries, and I would put it up there among the all-time great rivalries of sports. You had Wilt-Russell, Bird-Magic, Connors-Borg, there are certain pairings in the history of sports that cannot be surpassed. They’re a part of history, and not just sports, they’re cultural icons. People will remember Frazier-Ali I. All the advanced technology today allows everybody to see those fights and marvel at them. But there will be nothing like the first.”
J Russell Peltz, Hall of Fame promoter who was there that night in Madison Square Garden: “I consider Frazier-Ali I the greatest sporting event in the history of the world. I’m serious. Maybe it was the greatest social event in the history of the world. The buildup, the hype, it spilled over with the liberals against conservatives. I was 24 when the fight took place. I had been promoting fights for a year-in-a-half by then.
Frazier went to the Catskills to train. But the weather was so bad, and it snowed so much that Joe couldn’t do any roadwork. So, he came back to Philly to his Broad Street gym to train. They charged $2 to watch Joe. I remember going there and Yank Durham (Frazier’s trainer) pulled me aside with a stack of tickets to sell. It included a $150 front row ticket. I was young I didn’t know any better, so I sold the tickets at face value. I wound up selling the $150 ticket to a friend of mine who ran a bar on South Street. A month before the fight, they opened up the balcony so me and two friends showed up on a snowy Sunday night with hundreds of people in line. The box office opened at 8 a.m. the next morning. You were limited to two tickets, and I bought two for $20. The friend I left the extra ticket for never showed up. I always wondered what happened to that ticket.
"I went to the Garden sitting in the top row with my binoculars and I looked for my friend in the front row, and there he was with Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra and Diana Ross. I thought to myself, ‘What a jerk, that could have been you down there.’
"It was a great fight. I’m happy I was there. I always thought Frazier was in control of the fight. During the fight, I never thought Ali was ahead. It was a competitive fight. Frazier would whack him, and Ali would shake his head to the crowd as if he wasn’t hurt. But you knew he was taking shots. If that knockdown didn’t happen in the 15th round, there may have been a lot of arguing who won that fight. There were only 18,000 of us that were there. A lot of us are gone.
"I don’t think anyone could name a greater sporting event worldwide. The world stopped to watch that fight. It was certainly the greatest sporting event of my lifetime. Put it this way: People in Ireland, in Yugoslavia, in Brazil or Japan had to watch that fight—without today’s technology or social media. You don’t get the worldwide reaction like that today to Super Bowls.”
Jerry Izenberg, the Hall of Fame boxing writer who is 90 and covered both Ali and Frazier extensively. The amazing Izenberg is still writing for The Newark Star-Ledger, in Newark, New Jersey, though he calls Henderson, Nevada, home these days: “I couldn’t make it to the fight, because we got a call that day that my father-in-law had died. I was with Joe all week leading up to the fight, watching all the idiocy. Remembering my age, I saw this country divide before with Charles Lindbergh’s America First movement in the 1940s. America was divided over that. Two weeks before Frazier-Ali I, hard hats had a mass fistfight with hippies in Times Square.
"Muhammad and I were quite close, but Joe and I were quite close, too. Now, I couldn’t go. I did watch later. I knew Ali didn’t win. Ali knew he didn’t win. Though, Ali had half the country thinking it was a political decision. I thought let me get on a train and go to North Philly to see what Joe had to say about it. I remember walking into Joe’s Gym on Broad Street and there was this floor-to-ceiling picture of Ali on his ass and Joe moving away. I said, ‘You didn’t waste any time, did you?’
"I never doubted that Joe Frazier would win. By no means was Joe Frazier the best fighter in the world. But no one had a heart like Joe’s. To beat him, you would have to stab him." —Joe Hand Sr.
"Joe and I went to a local deli and we were going to talk after we ate. We were on a hill and there were these three little kids yelling ‘Joe Frazier, Joe Frazier, Joe Frazier.’ Joe loved it. Joe sent a gopher to get some autographed pictures for the kids. He hands out the pictures and one of the little kids said, ‘My daddy says that Muhammad Ali was drugged.’ I thought Joe was going to hit the kid for a second (laughs). Joe kneels down next to the kid and his face is four inches away when he says, ‘You go home and tell your daddy, he’s right. He was drugged. I drugged him with a left hook!’ The kids run away and Joe turns to me and very emotionally, he says, ‘You know I won that fight. Everyone should know I won that fight. Tell me, what do I have to do? What the hell do I have to do?’ It was very dramatic.
"We got in the car and went back to Joe’s gym and Joe was telling me a story about the shouting in the ring during the fight. Ali always said to me, 'Why do you write this stuff about me talking in the ring? I don’t talk in the ring.’ Well, he always talked in the ring. Always. He was so much into what he was doing that he didn’t even know he was talking half the time. So, Ali was told before the bell for 15 that he had to knock Joe out to win. Ali starts the round looking like he did before the exile. The jab is going pop, pop, pop, and the right hand is following. Ali looks great for 30 seconds. According to Joe Frazier, and I believe him, Ali is screaming at Joe, ‘Fall, fall, fall, don’t you know you can’t stand up in front of me, because God has willed that I will be the heavyweight champion!’ When he says this last, Frazier lets a left hook go and yells at Ali, ‘Well, God’s going to get his ass whipped tonight!’ Bang, down goes Ali.
"Joe was steaming even after he won. Twenty-five years after Manila, I did a retrospective. I was on the phone with Ali and I told him he didn’t do anybody any good with that ‘gorilla thing.’ Ali said he was trying to sell tickets. I told him he didn’t have to sell tickets. I told Muhammad what my old man told me, never try to bullshit a bullshitter. I let Ali know Joe’s kids used to come home crying because kids said their daddy was a ‘gorilla.’ Ali said he didn’t know that and he was sorry it happened. I didn’t know whether Ali knew or not. Ali asked me to do him a favor and tell Joe something: That he only meant to sell tickets and that he was really sorry about that. I called Frazier and I delivered Ali’s message. Joe said, ‘That’s what he said? I’ll tell you what, tell him to take that apology and shove it up his ass!’
"Nobody will ever convince me they made up. They’re both smart guys and knew there were certain situations years later when they had to shake hands. All fighters have a nasty streak, if they’re really good. This wasn’t Joe normally, but years later he would slip it in a conversation to make his point, ‘Look at him now and look at me now.’”
Joe Hand Sr., who is 84 and was a former Philadelphia police officer that was involved with Cloverlay Corporation, which helped provide financial stability for Frazier early in his career. Hand went on to Promotions, Inc., in 1971, one of the nation’s top closed-circuit TV distributors: “Cloverlay bought 1,000 tickets for the fight through Madison Square Garden’s Harry Markson. We distributed the tickets to our shareholders and we rented a train to Madison Square Garden and afterwards we had a party for Joe. Today, the posters I have of the fight still sell for $3,000 and $4,000. It’s the biggest sporting event that I ever experienced. I don’t think there will ever be an event like that again.
"I deposited the money at a local bank and I remember Joe wanted to see it. I called the bank and drove Joe over. We walked in and they piled a mound of money in a secure area. I think more money than we ever saw in our lives." —Joe Hand Sr.
"People that didn’t even know boxing were arguing over the fight. I remember waiting in line at a supermarket and two old ladies were arguing over the fight (laughs). To sit ringside, you had to dress formal and they were very strict about it. It didn’t matter who you were, you had to stay with their dress code. I never doubted that Joe Frazier would win. By no means was Joe Frazier the best fighter in the world. But no one had a heart like Joe’s. To beat him, you would have to stab him. Joe was determined. He took a terrible beating. What bothers me to this day was everyone abandoned Joe after that fight. Joe almost died. Joe was a small, thick man who was diabetic who had one bad eye. It’s why he fought only once in California, because the medical exam was too strict for Joe, so he never went back to California.
"I was sitting in the third row at Madison Square Garden for Frazier-Ali I. I remember Yank Durham’s wife, Barbara, fainted when they announced Joe won the fight. I knew Joe would win. I remember going back the next morning to pick up Joe’s money. Out of the $2.5 million, they took out $450,000 for taxes for training expenses in New York. We got the money back, because Joe left New York and didn’t train there. I deposited the money at a local bank and I remember Joe wanted to see it. I called the bank and drove Joe over. We walked in and they piled a mound of money in a secure area. I think more money than we ever saw in our lives. Joe was happy and we left.
"A day after the fight, Joe’s blood pressure shot up (Frazier was admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital on Tuesday, March 16, 1971). Yank didn’t want anyone to know Joe was in the hospital. Joe was in there for three days. It was kind of sad, because everyone who made money with Joe forgot Joe. Joe’s family went through hell before that fight. No matter what anyone tells you, Joe hated Ali. When Ali brought that rubber gorilla on Howard Cosell’s show, that really made Joe angry. Joe told me that the other kids in school were telling his kids, ‘Your father is a gorilla.’ Your father looks like ‘a monkey.’ These were white and black kids telling Joe’s kids this s---. That really bothered Joe. That’s when the animosity grew between the two of them.
"Even in later years, Joe was angry at Ali from that time before the first Frazier-Ali fight. That all came out in the fight. Joe had a lot of buildup anger. Ali was never going to win that fight.”
Jack Hirsch, former President of the Boxing Writers Association of America and member of the New York State Boxing Hall of Fame who was there live: “I sat in the last row. The balcony seats were priced $20 and I asked my parents if I could go. I put $20 in cash to Madison Square Garden, believe doing that today, and I had the advantage of asking for one ticket. I remember the police on horses and my ticket was inside a zippered sweater under a heavy jacket. I was that paranoid someone was going to take my ticket. I had my fist clenched in case I got jumped. I was in high school and I took the subway into the Garden, there was this guy sitting in the boondocks with me telling me he was offered $250 for his ticket outside. Just being inside the arena, you felt like you were witnessing history, like you were the extra in a movie.
"Talk about all the important dates in my life, in all due respect to my marriage and the birth of my children, Monday, March 8th, 1971, is a date that will always be special to me. It’s one thing I put above everything else I’ve done in boxing — I was there live for that fight. I have a couple of the programs and I have the cut-off ticket stub. Every once in a while, I’ll take a peek at the programs. I kept score and I had Frazier clearly winning. There was a major Ali presence at the Garden. But after the fight, everyone there thought that Frazier won.
"As the days and weeks went by, Ali tried to put the spin on it that he got robbed. Ali landed more punches, but Frazier landed the harder punches that had more damage. Years later, there was a book I saw showing that Frazier landed more punches, and harder punches. What resonates me with is that I knew when I went there as a high school kid, people would be still talking about that fight 50 years later. I’m glad the magnitude of that fight hasn’t diminished. It seemed we would never get a chance to see them in the ring, after Ali was banished for refusing induction. It began sinking in that it was actually happening. The feeling was, because Ali had been away, we wouldn’t see the best of Ali. No one went disappointed when they left.
"If you would go through time in terms of worldwide interest, the NFL would move the Super Bowl today if it had to go against the prime Frazier-Ali I—it was that big. Ali-Frazier was bigger than just a fight. There were a lot of Fight of the Centuries, this one was. After it was over, I hung around. You didn’t want to leave, because you knew you would never be a part of a happening like that again.”
Joe Frazier, who in 1999 spoke to Ring Magazine’s Joseph Santoliquito about Frazier-Ali I: “To me, it was like (preparing) for any other fight. I knew I would beat him. He couldn’t deal with this (holding up his dangerous left hand). Once I touched him with that, he was going to be in trouble.
"I’ll never forget what that man (Ali) put me through. He didn’t have to say the things that he did, calling me an ‘Uncle Tom,’ and a ‘gorilla.' It bothered me more that my kids had to hear it. Yeah, I was a ‘Tom,’ a ‘Tom’ for him. I busted my ass so (Ali) could get his (boxing) license back (after Ali had it taken for refusing induction into the military). This is the way I get treated? He turned people against me, black people, my people. He brought things into that fight that shouldn’t have been there.
"I remember the night of the fight how quiet it was (in his dressing room). My son (Marvis) later asked me what I was thinking (before the fight). I told him I prayed to God to help me kill this man, because he’s not righteous. I was never scared of him. Ali tried to play mind games. It backfired. He had to know I wasn’t Sonny Liston. I wasn’t going to roll over for him. His jab gave me trouble, because I got lumped up pretty good. Once I got by that, I knew I could break him down. I was able to take what he gave. He wasn’t able to take what I had. To him, it was a show. To me, it was a fight—a fight I knew I was going to win.”
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has been writing for PhillyVoice since its inception in 2015 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.