The storylines were drawn well in advance of the fight. Muhammad Ali was making his comeback to boxing. The sport banned him from fighting for four years for refusing to enter the U.S. Draft for the Vietnam War and stripped him of his title.
Joe Frazier, the current heavyweight champ, was a relentless attacker with a devastating left hook. He’d won the belt months earlier, but he hadn’t beaten Ali.
Dubbed “The Fight of the Century,” the two men would face off 50 years ago today.
Ali started the fight months in advance. He trash-talked Frazier at every turn in the press. He portrayed him as “the white man’s champion” and called him an “Uncle Tom. While Ali made himself the hero-come-home. It was, in all estimations, an unfair characterization of the Philadelphia-born Frazier, and it cut deep.
On the other side, Frazier found new fans who wrapped themselves in the flag. Ali refused to fight in Vietnam, and he was a member of the controversial Nation of Islam.
The fight was brutal.
Ali’s quickness and fierce left jab kept Frazier at bay for a time. But Frazier kept creeping in, landing devastating blows to Ali’s head. By the sixth round, reports say Ali’s head was beginning to swell. It only got worse as it went on. Though, Frazier would take the most damage in the ring. But he kept pressing the attack.
Well after he’d already won the fight via points, Frazier finally landed a left hook clean across Ali’s chin in the 15th and final round. Ali fell back onto the canvas. It was one of only four times someone has ever knocked him down.
Frazier won the fight by unanimous decision. Though it was a pyrrhic victory.
The Winner Lost and the Loser Won that Title Fight
Muhammad Ali left the ring with his bloody, swollen head held high. Despite losing, he’d still won.
“Both men left the ring changed men that night,” Wilfrid Sheed wrote. “For Frazier, his greatness was gone, that un-quantifiable combination of youth, ability, and desire. For Ali, the public hatred he had so carefully nursed to his advantage came to a head and burst that night and has never been the same. To his supporters, he became a cultural hero. His detractors finally gave him grudging respect. At least they had seen him beaten and seen that smug look wiped off his face.”
Later that night, Ali got a phone call telling him that Joe Frazier was in the hospital and was likely near death. The champ couldn’t eat or drink, and doctors were doing all that they could to get his blood pressure to fall, ESPN said. Ali fell to his knees and prayed. Frazier survived, but he was never the same. Both the blows to his body and his image were too much.
He’d lose the heavyweight title to George Foreman almost two years later. Ali and Frazier would fight two more times with Ali winning the rematches.
For Ali, The Fight of the Century was a rebirth.
“As Ali’s image and myth and name and reputation grew, Joe’s was sure to suffer, boxing historian Burt Sugar said.
“The winner that night was the loser and the loser that night was the winner.”