As much as any man might be defined by a day, Joe Frazier’s day was March 8, 1971.
Frazier was a fighter, and if ever a man met and equaled a profession, it was on the day that Joe Frazier met boxing. Frazier was built for the fight and could take punishment. Muhammad Ali—another individual more than equal to his work—was a fighter too. Ali was Cassius Clay before he was Ali, but no matter what he called himself, he had not fought since 1967. He had refused to participate in the draft for Vietnam and was stripped of the heavyweight title he had won from Sonny Liston in 1964. Both men were undefeated entering Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971.
Their particular dynamics made them an interesting pair in the ring. Ali was taller and faster, while Frazier was thorough and strong—and hauled around a left hook that could loosen the earth from its axis. Ali was chatty and fun when he wanted to be; Frazier was to the point. Each man’s career would have been lesser without the other.
It was one of the most-hyped events in athletic history; three hundred million people were thought to have viewed it through closed-circuit television. Even Frank Sinatra was down on the floor—taking photographs for Life magazine.
The fight began with the energy that had ushered it in but quickly fell into a brutal cadence. Ali had the reach, certainly, but Frazier kept coming at him and coming at him. Those who paid $150 for a ringside seat that evening can forever claim they squeezed their ticket for every nickel they could get.
By the twelfth round, each man was leaning on the other, dragging around the ring, punctuated by moments of activity—an uppercut, a hook. Mainly, though, it descended into a sloppy brawl, with each man pouring out everything he had. Forty years removed, some of the punches are still difficult to see and hear, except for the most callous fight fan. Blood appeared on Ali’s shoulder in the thirteenth round (probably Frazier’s), and Ali stumbled a bit in the same round.
By the fifteenth round, the fight had further descended into a slow dance with the occasional punch. However, at the two-minute, thirty-three second mark, Frazier claimed the day. As Ali lowered his right arm, possibly preparing to come under Frazier’s jaw, Frazier landed a left hook that parked Ali on the mat. Though he was only there for a few moments, it was a place Ali had not spent a lot of time.
Frazier would park another magnificent left hook on Ali at the one-minute, thirty-two second mark, and of the thousands of punches the great Ali took over his long and amazing career, he might still feel that second left hook from the fifteenth round. It was a solid, unprotected, squarely landed punch that would have ended the career of a lesser fighter. Frazier won the day.
They would meet two more times, with Ali claiming victories in both fights, but this—the first match between them—would be Frazier’s greatest win. In it, he answered all the questions that had been asked in Ali’s absence from boxing about who the world’s greatest fighter was . . . for the moment.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali / LeRoy Neiman / Color halftone poster, 1975 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution