It was Madison Square Garden, New York, 1971, the first fight of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier series.
After three rounds Frazier’s forehead had developed several raised bumps. Halfway through the fight they had disappeared. It was only when you saw him in profile at the press conference you realised what had happened – the whole of his forehead was one massive bruise.
Ali’s jabs had done the damage, scores of them, and Frazier had delivered far less in return. With one exception: the left hook in the 15th round did what Henry Cooper’s hook had famously done. Put him on the seat of his pants.
The Greatest rivalry? Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali fought three titanic battles
Ali climbed up to not only survive but to win the final round. Yet the verdict went against him.
To put the situation in context, Ali was coming back after being stripped of his title for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. This was his second fight and Jerry Quarry had barely troubled him in the first one.
Few sympathised with Ali at the time, to most he was an unpatriotic black guy, but that spectacular hook gave the judges the chance to delight in his ‘defeat’.
History makers: Frazier (left) and Ali reunited again in 2002
In the return, also in New York, Frazier lost and in the third and final fight, the brutal Thrilla in Manila, Frazier was forced by his corner to quit. Maybe they saved his life.
The first time I saw Frazier train he came out of the shower and when he walked across the dressing room floor he left a footprint with no arch. A friend of his explained that in the cotton-picking state of South Carolina where he was born many of the children didn’t wear shoes.
Then he moved to Chicago where the environment completed his upbringing as a hard, hard man. That’s what he was, enormously tough and relentless and it was good enough to win the title in Ali’s absence and to dispose of the likes of Jimmy Ellis, Oscar Bonavena, Bob Foster and others.
Then along came George Foreman to bounce him all round the ring in Kingston, Jamaica, for a little less than two rounds. And of course Ali stopped Foreman in Kinshasa, The Rumble in the Jungle.
Joe enjoyed life with his rock and roll band but he was not a Joe Louis or Rocky Marciano or even perhaps a Larry Holmes. But in his own way he made boxing history and he deserved a longer life.
SMOKIN JOE’S BATTLES WITH THE GREATEST
Fight I – The Fight of the Century
March 8, 1971
Ali was knocked down in the 15th round, Frazier won a unanimous points decision
How Sportsmail saw it:
‘Treasure your memories of Cassius Clay. Whether he fights again or not the great days are over. And you may never see his like again. Those superb, supple, dancing legs failed him against Joe Frazier. By any other heavyweight standards they were still good, but they could no longer carry him at welterweight speed for 15 rounds. The hands still dazzled, the rehearsed clowning disguised the weakness. But Frazier went through hell and humiliation to expose the truth.’
Fight II – Ali-Frazier II
January 28, 1974
Ali won a unanimous points decision after 15 rounds
How Sportsmail saw it:
‘Joe Frazier’s wife Florence wants him to retire after the 12-round beating he took at Madison Square Garden. For six rounds Ali outclassed him but the wounded animal found the strength for a new onslaught. Yet even in those seventh and eighth rounds, which Frazier won, I feared for his safety. Another fight? When these men meet their lives are at stake. It would be hard to bear if anything happened to them. The issue is decided anyway. Ali is the Master beyond doubt.’
Fight III – The Thrilla in Manila
October 1, 1975
After 14 rounds, trainer Eddie Futch pulled Frazier out of the contest before the final round
How Sportsmail saw it : ‘A thousand writers searching for the words to do justice to what they had seen, squirmed with envy when Muhammad Ali himself provided them. “What you saw was next to death,” the man said. “A fight like that is one step away from dying. When you get to the late rounds you want to pass out, you want to throw up.” It helped explain why he, the winner and still world heavyweight champion, was talking of retirement. It made it all the more difficult to understand why Joe Frazier talks of going on. Pruning that final round was a mercy. It left Frazier with the energy for a final adventure. Beaten and battered he still went across to slap Ali’s back.’