But it seemed like only yesterday. The death, Monday night, of former heavyweight boxing champ, Joe Frazier conjured up a memory for me. On the night of March 8, 1971, Frazier fought Muhammad Ali in what would later be called “The Fight Of The Century”. It was held in Madison Square Garden, in New York, long before title fights found permanent venues in the casinos of Las Vegas or Atlantic City (heck, gambling wasn’t even legalized in New Jersey until November, 1972).
On this night, I was a freshman as Ohio University, but wanted desperately to see the fight. That wasn’t happening. There was no pay per view then. Most title fights were shown on closed circuit television, a novel concept that involved going to a movie theatre where the fight was shown on the big screen, transmitted usually in black and white by telephone line. Since Athens, Ohio, wasn’t a major city the fight wasn’t available ‘live’ in either of the two movie theaters. The closest venue to show the bout live was Chicago. I had neither the time, nor the money to make that trip.
But fights back then, the bigger ones anyway, were available on radio stations. One of the stations broadcasting the fight had a signal that boomed into Athens after the sun went down. And if I stood in just the right spot, in-between two dorms outside, I could get the station. It was coming in loud and clear on this particular crisp, late winter night. My transistor radio batteries were fresh. I caught all of the blow by blow action, called if I’m not mistaken, by legendary fight broadcaster, Don Dunphy.
You have to realize, boxing was still very popular back in the early 70’s, particularly in the heavyweight class, largely because of Ali. He was simply the most riveting athlete of his time. His popularity bridged all races, socio-economic classes, ages and genders. He was loved and hated, probably by equal amount. Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the Army not only cost him three and a half years of his career (he was stripped of his World Heavyweight Championship belt by the World Boxing Council) and forced to earn money by traveling the country holding boxing exhibitions and giving talks to small groups. He actually stopped at Ohio University during his exile, a few years before I arrived at Ohio. Ali was a hero to a lot of young Americans who saw Viet Nam for what it was and wanted no part of it.
Ali arrived on the night of the fight with a record of 31-0. Frazier was 28-0, with 23 of those wins by knockout. He was under sized by heavyweight standards, but he packed a lethal punch
For 15 rounds, with the undisputed heavyweight championship on the line, both fighters traded vicious blows. There was none more vicious than a left hook that Frazier landed to Ali’s jaw, late in the 14th round. It was so vicious, it broke Ali’s jaw. Somehow, he managed to finish the round on his feet and continue through the 15th and final round. Frazier won the fight on decision. It was Ali’s first defeat as a professional and he would not win another title fight for three and a half more years.
Ali and Frazier fought twice more, with Ali winning both. One was dubbed, by Ali of course, as the “Thrilla In Manilla”. But neither of the two rematches lived up to the fight that night in March, 1971. I remember standing there, transistor radio in hand, looking around that college green under a cloudless, star filled sky and seeing a lot of other college kids listening on transistor radios to the same broadcast.
Like many things that are gone with the wind, so too is that night. And so too now is Joe Frazier, far too young at the age of 67. When boxing mattered, when championship fights were special, Frazier was a central figure. He played foil to Ali’s hero. But not on March 8, 1971. That night, there was no bigger name in sport, than “Smokin’ Joe” Frazier. What a boxer. What a fight. What a night.