Rome—Back in February, 1971, a college roommate and I lined up overnight outside Madison Square Garden in New York to get tickets to the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier boxing “Fight of the Century” set for the next month.
It was a freezing and windy night outside the Garden and we spent it shuffling our feet and chatting with a bunch of other affable fight fans waiting to buy the maximum pair of $20 tickets in the mezzanine section put on the sale to the public. It was the first and only time my face appeared on the front page of any newspaper: The New York Post sent a photographer over to snap us and the shot was featured above the caption “Waiting For Ali and Joe.”
I had earned the $40 to buy the tickets painting houses of professors in New Haven because I didn’t want to miss the fight and because I had a money making venture in mind. I thought I knew who would win and knew that my classmates would choose the other guy and I would collect on a bunch of bets.
This may not seem like such a big deal, but at my school, everyone thought Muhammed Ali would triumph, even those who had never seen a boxing match. It was partly a political choice: anti-war feeling was all the rage then and Ali had stood up and refused to be drafted out of conviction. Ali had been unjustly stripped of his title four years before and was aiming to get it back. Frazier, who had won the championship in the meantime, stood in his way. Both were undefeated. Ali was the favorite.
I had a different view. Mostly, it was based on the difference in preparation of the two fighters: A slightly flabby Ali trained in Miami Beach, near my home town, and bantered with visiting crowds at the 5th Street Gym. Frazier trained in virtual seclusion in Pennsylvania. I thought the latter choice reflected an extra seriousness. I also thought that Frazier had a style that could possibly stand up to and even avoid Ali’s lightning fast jabs: he bobbed and weaved and ducked and put his face right up against opponents’ chests while lashing out with a left hook powered from below, from Frazier’s tree-like legs.
I actually thought that Ali was the superior boxer over all. There had never been a heavyweight who moved like a lightweight, never one as quick on his feet and with his hands. But there was one added feature that I thought maybe gave Frazier an edge: anger at deep insult.
In Ali’s verbose buildup to the fight, he called Frazier ignorant, too ugly to be champ and the White Man’s hope. Today, such scorn would be seen as what it was, racial taunting. Then, it was just Ali mouthing off and amusing everyone.
But for Frazier, the taunts represented disrespect for a fellow black man whose life, if anything, had been harder and fuller of deprivation than middle-class Ali’s: Joe was one of 16 kids born to sharecroppers in South Carolina. At the age of 16, he worked in a Philadelphia slaughterhouse house to make ends meet before taking up boxing. He used sides of beef as punching bags.
Anyway, in March, 1971, Ali was already shooting for the stars as universal hero. Joe was fighting for self-respect.
So, I sat at a table in the college dining room, made bets, and put at stake the $40 profit from scalping my extra $20 ticket. Even money, no odds. Classmates were eager: this was going to ratifify all the anti-war, anti-Nixon sentiment at my school and nationwide. How can you bet against history? I was thought to be a dummy. (My brief entry into the campus debate over Vietnam was to caution against labeling all US soldiers baby killers. I thought it was off-putting, arrogant and did the anti-war cause no good. Maybe, I was also defending myself; I had a low draft lottery number and would enter the US Army after 1971 graduation.)
My roommate bet $2 against me and we went down to New York together to see the fight. We were in the front row way up in the mezzanine balcony, a good seat in the Garden and took in the electric scene. Glittery uptown fashions and Frank Sinatra with a still camera illuminated ringside. Ali entered the ring in red shorts with white trim and white shoes with red tassels. Joe wore gaudy green shorts. They glared at each other at mid-ring and Frazier seemed to have the run of things in the early rounds.
Ali had predicted Frazier would fall in six, but it didn’t happen. If Ali started to sting Joe, the crowd chanted, “Ali, Ali.” My buddy chided me, telling me to hand over the money now.
By the 11th, though, Joe took charge and the fickle crowd screamed, “Joe, Joe.” It was clear by the 15th and final round that, if Ali had a chance at all, he would have to close with a flourish that would show who, after so much battering, was in charge. Ali was good at that.
In the last round, the pair tapped gloves in the traditional salute of boxers at fight’s end and Ali danced a bit. Then it happened. Thirty seconds in, Frazier’s left hook came from the deep. Ali was on his back, his tassels suddenly appearing in the air where his head once was.
Ali got up, steadied himself on the ropes and lasted the round. In the end, the judges voted for Frazier. I didn’t bother to say anything to my roomie, who handed over the money.
Frazier’s career faded, when he got flattened by George Foreman. He toured for a while with an R&B group called the Knockouts.
Ali, on the other hand, went on to more glory and glorification: he beat Frazier twice and won and lost the heavyweight championship twice more. He was feted by world leaders, became a kind of sage of courage and racial tolerance, became the subject of film documentaries and a huge coffee table book called “Greatest of All Time,” and lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta as he physically declined from Parkinson’s Disease. He died the other day.
Don’t get me wrong. Ali was fighting for self-respect. But Frazier’s was more personal. He apparently never got over the slights (Ali called him a “gorilla” before their last championship fight, 1975 in Manila). Practically to his dying day, in 2011, Frazier said nasty things about Ali, somehow feeling he had never gotten his due. Maybe not. But for one night, he displayed the power of anger and hunger.
Anyway, I made a small $40 pay day off of Smokin’ Joe’s.
The 15th Round.