Monday, September 27, 2010

Muhammad Ali, Part II...The Fight of the Century.

Joe Frazier knocks Muhammad Ali down, January, 1971, Madison Square Garden...The Fight of the Century.

In late October, 1974, Muhammad Ali pulled off perhaps his greatest inside-the-ring miracle when he knocked George Foreman to the ground for 10 seconds and became the only heavyweight champion to regain the title a second time. 

The pre-fight shenanigans were nearly as entertaining as the fight itself.  For the first time, a heavyweight championship fight was being held on the continent of Africa.  Kinshasa, Zaire, to be exact.  The Zaire government wanted desperately to be taken seriously as global entity and thought, oddly, the way to do that was to host a fight.  So they did.

To refresh, Ali had been stripped of his title, illegally, by the governing bodies of boxing when he refused to step forth for the draft saying, "No Viet Cong ever called me nigger."   Consequently, we never saw Ali at his best as a fighter.  We can only imagine how good he might have been.  For three and half years he was not allowed to fight professionally.  His license to fight was taken from him and immediately a round-robin tournament was arranged to find his successor.  The tournament was won by a mediocre fighter by the name of Jimmy Ellis who, earlier, had been Ali's sparring partner.  The best fighter in the world, outside of Ali, was a former Olympic champion by the name of Joe Frazier who, wisely, decided to sit out the tournament and just wait for the winner.  So after Ellis won the tournament Frazier set up a fight with him and ate him up and spit him out.  So by the time the United States Supreme Court ruled that Ali could not be prosecuted for his refusal to be drafted, Frazier had established himself as the best fighter around by a country mile.

Which set the stage for the first time two undefeated heavyweight champions have ever fought for the title.

Ali had two "warm-up" fights in preparation for his legendary night with Frazier.  The first against an underrated fighter by the name of Jerry Quarry.  After three and half years of inactivity, Ali beat the determined Quarry after cutting him deeply above the eye in the third round in his famous come-back fight in Atlanta, Georgia.  The fight was short and it proved nothing.  Could Ali still fight?  Hard to say after only three rounds.  So he set up another fight with a very tough Argentine fighter named Oscar Bonevena. 

This one went the full fifteen rounds and Ali looked terrible.  His timing was off, he wasn't dancing after the fourth round, his much anticipated pinpoint shots were sloppy, he looked, well, simply average.  But something strange happened in the fifteenth and final round of the fight.  Ali suddenly came out on his toes, dancing and moving like the old Ali.  He started throwing those razor sharp jabs and crosses.  He looked determined.  He began controlling the fight.  And Bonevena was overwhelmed.  Ali knocked him down three times and walked away with a technical knockout.  He felt, wrongly as it turns out, he was ready for Frazier.

Joe Frazier was never what might be called a gifted fighter.  But what he lacked in finesse he more than made up for in will power, hard work and total determination.  He was unable to fight a defensive fight.  Always moving forward, always charging in, head down, slinging his famous left hook like a scythe.  He was a guy who didn't know how to give up and wasn't afraid of anyone.  And he hated Muhammad Ali with a passion.  For even though Frazier was the official world champion, most of the public still considered Ali to be the real champion.  And most insulting, the black community recognized Ali as the one and true champion.

The pre-fight build-up got ugly fast.  Frazier was an easy target for Ali.  He didn't speak well, he said dumb things when he did, and worst of all, Ali painted him to be the 'white man's' champion.  The truth was, of course, Frazier was a far better example of the 'black experience' than Ali ever was.  But Ali was a publicist's dream and soon had the nation thinking the fight was racially motivated.  By the time the fight actually started in January of 1971 in Madison Square Garden, Frazier was completely consumed with his hatred for Ali. 

It's a very good fight.  I have watched it a dozen times or so.  The battle see-sawed back and forth for fourteen very brutal rounds.  Frazier, as it turns out, had a style of fighting that gave Ali fits; head down, in close, hard shots to the body, never giving Ali the chance to stand straight up and whip him with his long-range jabs.  Frazier never stopped moving forward. 

I have scored the fight several times, trying to objectively watch the fight as just two men in the ring, not blinded by the charisma of Ali.  And I, like all three of the judges on hand that night, have had the fight absolutely even going into the last round.  By that point both fighters are tired, Ali more so than Frazier.  But the last round was the the one that counted and Frazier landed a murderous left hook about a minute and fifty seconds into it.  It's a text-book shot.  Frazier's left hand nearly touches the floor as he launches it.  Ali, who always had a weakness for left hooks, never saw it coming and when it lands it takes him completely off his feet and his shoulders hit the mat before the rest of his body.  A titanic punch.  I can't imagine another fighter getting up after that shot but Ali does.  And almost immediately.  His jaw is instantly swelling.  A minute later when the bell rings it is the size of a grapefruit.  The round and consequently the fight go to Frazier. 

And for the first time, the world sees another fighter's hand raised in the ring at the end of an Ali fight. 

But more importantly, the greatest boxing rivalry in the sport is born that night.  Ali versus Frazier.  It was far from over.  It set the stage for two more no-holds-barred, grudge matches  The next occurred in 1973 and the final, and most savage of the three, in 1975.  But for the moment, Ali was out of the running.  White America was throwing a party.  The loud mouth and been briefly silenced.  Truth, Justice and the American Way had been upheld.  Ali had finally been defeated and defeated soundly.  The photo of Ali on his back in that terrible fifteenth round, eyes rolled up in his head, jaw swelling, was seen round the globe. 

And Smokin' Joe Frazier was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

And the perfect drama, the cosmic playwright's fondest dream was underway.  What could possibly top this?

See you tomorrow.