Wednesday, March 7

The "Fight of the Century"

It has been years since the sport of boxing was iconic in American culture. But, 41 years ago, on March 8th, 1971, boxing was the center of the cultural world. On that day, in Madison Square Garden, Joe Frazier, a native of South Carolina, met Muhammad Ali in the ring. It was billed "Battle of the Champions" and the "Fight of the Century," and for good reason. No fight like it had happened before in sport of boxing, and no showdown perhaps had happened in all of sports.

Joe Frazier was the recognized heavyweight champion of the world and was undefeated. Ali was undefeated as well, and had been the heavyweight champion of the world before he refused induction into the United States Army on religious and conscious grounds. That led to Ali being stripped of his titles. That led fight commentators and fans to see Ali as the true champion, since he had never lost his title in the ring.

The circumstances surrounding Ali's political stands created a cultural clash. It was billed as establishment versus anti establishment. It was billed as working class ethics versus elite liberalism and views. Some in the Black community billed as Uncle Tom (Frazier) versus a real Black Man. Added to all that, Ali was press friendly, smooth in his talking and his hyping. Frazier was gruff. It was a true cultural battle. The working class folks, especially working class whites, backed Frazier. The press and the so called elite backed Ali.

The fight would prove one of the ages. It would go the distance of 15 rounds. Frazier would win a unanimous decision, in part because of his performance in the late rounds and his knockdown of Ali in the final round. That would be the high point of the career of Joe Frazier.

Frazier would lose the heavyweight championship to George Foreman, yes the grill guy. Ali would then add to his legend by defeating Foreman with the "rope a dope" strategy in a fight billed as the "Rumble in the Jungle." The questions about Ali's toughness caused by the late rounds against Frazier would never be raised again as Ali took all the powerful Foreman had and simply made Foreman too tired to fight on. Ali's strategy would be praised and used by others in sports. Ali would also defeat Frazier twice in future fights, lose and win back the title again and become one of the most adored athletes in the world.

The relationship between Ali and Frazier was strained. Reports say when Ali lit the torch at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Frazier was still bitter about Ali. The two did reconcile of sorts, and Ali attended Frazier's funeral.

VUI mentions the fight 41 years ago to lament the fact that the sweet science of boxing has no such figures today. Once a boxing match was the center of the cultural world, a place where the clash of ideas could be reduced down to two men fighting in the ring. Now, boxing is just a sideshow, filled with clown promoters and boxers with no personality. But, it was not that way 41 years ago. That day, the whole world was watching.
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