With the possible exception of David vs. Goliath, the greatest rivalry in the history of individual human combat was the three-fight trilogy staged by Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier from 1971-75. It began as the embodiment of the culture war taking place at that time in America, and it evolved into a conflict in the ring that ennobled both gladiators and defined the essence of a brutal sport.
Ali-Frazier I and III each were named “Fight of the Year” by The Ring magazine, and though it was a 12-round non-world title fight, Ali-Frazier II was a vital steppingstone that set up another epic Ali fight, “The Rumble in the Jungle,” when Ali became the second man to regain the heavyweight title by knocking out fearsome George Foreman. In 1996, The Ring recognized Ali-Frazier III as the No. 1 fight in boxing history.
In his prime, Ali was regarded as the best-known figure in the world, sporting or otherwise, and the humble Frazier served as his perfect foil. Ali already had developed into a cultural icon by the time of their first fight on March 8, 1971 at Madison Square Garden.
The former Cassius Clay stepped into the spotlight as a brash figure whose celebration of his good looks and his success in the ring empowered African-Americans at a time when the Civil Rights movement was in full throat and “black is beautiful” had become a generational catchphrase. When he joined the Nation of Islam, changed his name to Muhammad Ali and ultimately refused induction into the U.S. Army as a conscientious objector, Ali became a cross-cultural lightning rod, a hero to anti-establishment liberals and Vietnam War protesters and a pariah to some social conservatives.
Frazier originally supported Ali during the time he was banned from boxing while taking his case to the Supreme Court, but as the man who ascended to the heavyweight championship throne during Ali’s absence, a rivalry was natural. Though Frazier was the son of a South Carolina sharecropper and had experienced deep-set racism while growing up in ghettos in Philadelphia and New York, he was cast by Ali and much of the national media, in effect, as the “white man’s champion.”
Ali’s comeback began in late 1970 while his court case still was pending, and Frazier was his third opponent. Their first meeting at the Garden was the ultimate celebrity event with iconic singer Frank Sinatra at ringside taking photos for Life Magazine and the two fighters set to make a record purse of $2.5 million each.
Ali started quickly, but Frazier pressed a withering body attack in the middle rounds and clearly staggered Ali with a left hook in the 11th. Most had Frazier slightly ahead, and he sealed the unanimous decision by flooring Ali with another left in the 15th round.
Following the first loss of his career, Ali won 12 of his next 13 bouts, getting upset when he suffered a broken jaw against Ken Norton in March 1973. By the time he got a rematch with Frazier on Jan. 28, 1974, at the Garden, neither was champion since Frazier had lost the title to Foreman. Ali won a clear unanimous decision by using his speed to outpoint Frazier in a fight with no knockdowns.
Ali regained the heavyweight title in his next fight with Foreman, and four fights later, he met Frazier on Oct. 1, 1975, in their third bout known as the “Thrilla in Manila.” By then, Ali believed Frazier was seriously diminished. Throughout the promotion, he constantly referred to his opponent as a “gorilla,” playing on the convenient rhyme with the fight’s title. Deeply offended and resentful of Ali’s taunting over the years, Frazier was in great shape and came in hell bent on winning.
What developed was a brutal war of attrition fought in the searing heat and humidity of the Philippines. Frazier dominated the middle rounds with his determined body attack, but he also absorbed tremendous punishment on the way inside.
Understanding he was in the fight of his life, Ali found the fortitude to up the tempo and pepper Frazier with combinations. Frazier’s left eye was a slit by the 11th round, and by the 14th, his right eye nearly was swollen shut, too.
He would have come out for the 15th, but trainer Eddie Futch told Frazier, “It’s all over. No one will forget what you did here today.” Ali raised his arms in triumph and then collapsed in the ring in exhaustion. Afterward, Ali called it the “closest thing to death” he ever had experienced.
Without any doubt, it was the finest hour for “The Greatest.”