Probably the most famous rivalry in boxing history.
When Muhammad Ali was stripped of his championship in 1967 following refusal of the draft to fight in the Vietnam War the heavyweight championship was thrown into a state of confusion
The World Heavyweight Championship was again split into 2 parts. The WBA elected to hold an eight man elimination tournament to crown a new champion. The tournament was eventually won by Jimmy Ellis who defeated Jerry Quarry in the final. The WBC elected Buster Mathis and an undefeated fighter by the name of Joe Frazier to contest their vacant title. Frazier knocked out Mathis to claim the title. The title was again undisputed when Frazier knocked out Ellis in 1970. So Frazier was the undisputed champion but the peoples champion was waiting for him. The man who said that eliminations were imitations Muhammad Ali.
Meanwhile after a 3 year exile Muhammad Ali was granted his boxing licence back after the Supreme Court ruled in his favour. He proceeded to beat Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena in his two comeback fights. After knocking out Bob Foster in Nov 1970 in defence of his title Frazier signed to fight Ali in the first ever battle of undefeated champions.
The venue for the fight was to be Madison Square Garden and the date March 8 1971. It was billed simply as “The Fight”. Both men were guaranteed 2 and half million dollars each which at the time was the biggest payday in history. Anyone who was anyone was there. Even Frank Sinatra was ringside taking photographs.
The fight started with Ali dancing and Frazier stalking. Ali would try and let Frazier tire himself out but the champion was connecting with hard body shots which slowed Ali down. This allowed Frazier to connect more often with hard left hooks. Ali was staggered in the 11th round and everyone ringside thought he was on his way out but Ali was probably part clowning. Frazier however confirmed his superiority in the 15th round by dropping Ali with a fierce left hook which would have knocked out a horse.
If Ali didn’t have to prove it in his 60s championship days he certainly proved it here and that was he could take one hell of a punch. He rose almost immediately and saw the fight through to the final bell.
When the decision was announced it came as no surprise to anyone. Frazier took a unanimous decision. The fight was so brutal that both men were taken to hospital. Frazier spent a little longer in the hospital which allowed Ali to mention about how much damage he had done although a side of his face was badly swollen.
Ali however returned quickly to the ring to defeat Jimmy Ellis in July 1971. He then followed this up with a series of victories before breaking his jaw and losing a decision to Ken Norton. He avenged this however and following one more victory was ready to face Frazier again.
This time however the rematch was to be a non title fight. Following his victory over Ali Frazier defended against Ron Stander and Terry Daniels and was the matched with Olympic Champion George Foreman in Kingston Jamaica.
Frazier who thought this bout was a stepping stone to a rematch with Ali was knocked down 6 times in 2 rounds before losing the crown. Frazier rebounded with a points win over Joe Bugner and was ready for an Ali rematch.
To hype the fight up the two boxers brawled in the studio. Frazier looked serious but it seemed Ali was clowning The rematch was fought in January 1974 again at Madison Square Garden but this time the result was very different. Ali entered one of his best ever performances and almost stopped Frazier in the second round but referee Tony Perez stepped in thinking the round had ended. Ali then proceeded to win a one sided unanimous decision. This earned Ali the right to challenge George Foreman to try and regain the Heavyweight title.
Ali shocked the boxing world in October 1974 allowing Foreman to punch himself out whilst resting against the ropes to claim an eighth round knockout whilst Frazier came back with wins over Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Ellis. After defending the title against Chuck Wepner, Ron Lyle and Joe Bugner Ali was ready to face Frazier once more. Frazier was actually ringside for the Bugner fight and Ali taunted him between rounds.
Ali and Frazier would meet for the third time on 1 October 1975 at the Coliseum in Manila. Ali would get 4 and a half million dollars to Frazier’s 2 million. Ali promised it would be “a killa and a thrilla and a chilla when he got the gorilla in Manila”. Ali was convinced that Frazier was over the hill and granted him one last payday
28,000 people packed the arena and an estimated 700 million people watched the fight worldwide. The fight would start at 11am probably to accommodate US television.
Ali started the fight attacking Frazier and continued this for the first three rounds In the 5th round however there was a change in momentum as Frazier backed Ali into a corner and pounded him to the body and head. Although ahead in the scoring Ali almost quit 2 thirds into the fight due to the heat and the onslaught of Frazier. Angelo Dundee sent him out saying that this is the thing that seperates the men from the boys. Ali proceeded to rally in the 11th, 12th and 13th round to cause Frazier’s eyes and cheeks to puff up. The champion continued this in the 14th trying his best to put Frazier away.After 14 brutal rounds both men were exhausted.
Eddie Futch, Joe Frazier’s trainer then made one of the most humane decisions ever not allowing Joe to come out for fifteenth round. Fearing a fatality he puts one hand on Frazier’s shoulder telling him it’s over.
Ali sensing the fight is over stands up to celebrate but soon collapses with exhaustion. Following the fight he comments that this was the closest thing to death he had experienced. It was probably the only way to close the chapter on such a rivalry.