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Ali-Frazier remains greatest of all time

Joe Frazier hits Muhammad Ali with a left

Joe Frazier hits Muhammad Ali with a left during the 15th round of their heavyweight title fight at Madison Square Garden. (Mar. 8, 1971) Credit: AP, 1971

Even as history goes on repeating itself in so many ways, the March 8, 1971, Ali-Frazier heavyweight prize fight - now exactly 40 years past - holds fast to its one-time-only status.

"I don't see it" ever happening again, said boxing's premier historian, Bert Sugar. The confluence of contrasting boxing styles, the fighters' dissimilar personalities, wild promotional hoopla, some complicated links to race and politics, all met for a singular happening difficult to fathom now.

"It was not just a fight," Sugar reminded. "It was an event that encapsulated the Vietnam conflict, with Ali on one side and Frazier adopted - for whatever reason, he didn't know - by the other side. The first time two undefeated heavyweights fought . . ."

And plenty more.

There were some strange interpretations, fueled by Muhammad Ali, that a showdown between two black men somehow could cast Joe Frazier as the "white man's champion." There was a perception that older people tended to find Ali "mouthy, which might have had racial aspects," Duke University cultural anthropologist Orin Starn said.

Played out over a brutal 15 rounds, it left Frazier with a battered face and a narrow victory and Ali with a badly swollen jaw. The only other "event with a capital E" that Sugar puts in the Ali-Frazier category was the 1973 Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs tennis "The Battle of the Sexes, where you also had a divisiveness, something going on beyond the field of play."

On March 8, 1971, there was a nationwide on-the-street buzz. Starn, a sixth-grader in California at the time, said "it was all the kids were talking about at school. It was like a presidential election or something."

Could another Ali - a supremely gifted athlete, antiwar protester and, as Starn put it, "a one-man PR company, a guy who's been called the father of hip-hop" - be found again? Could another ideal foil - a "Smokin' Joe" Frazier, complete with the glower to accompany his jackhammer blows? Could another "fight of the century" promotion be lived up to, as the Ali-Frazier ruckus was?

"Could we have another Beatles?" Starn asked rhetorically. "Since the '60s and '70s, the taste of Americans has fragmented and spun out into thousands of different niche markets and tastes. It's hard for a particular event to rivet the nation's attention the way Ali-Frazier did."

Sugar, who was there, recalled how it was "a seen and be-seen crowd," with a celebrity quotient so high - Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Diana Ross - that former Vice President Hubert Humphrey "was sitting in the third balcony; he couldn't get a better seat. People were coming into the Garden in their white hats and floor-length sable coats. And those were the men. The women were in hot pants."

"Being a part of New York was the thing," Frazier said Monday night at Madison Square Garden before the Knicks-Jazz game. "It was the capital of boxing and everybody wanted to come to the Garden."

From a distance, Starn recalled that, "weirdly, what gave glamour to it being forbidden fruit. You had to go to a movie theater and pay a lot of money to actually watch it. You listened on the radio. With the underexposure, there was a Wizard of Oz sense; it gained in grandeur and majesty from the fact you couldn't see what was behind the curtain. And when the curtain was pulled back, it was just a couple of guys beating the crap out of each other."

Since then, boxing's slow decline has been obvious, though "it's not as if America has lost its taste for two men beating each other to a pulp," Starn said, citing football and mixed martial arts. "I associate boxing more with an older America, racetracks, cigar smoke. For whatever reason, boxing doesn't fit the 21st century zeitgeist of technology."

To Sugar, it's a requiem for all heavyweights. "Americans like big things," he said. "Big bank accounts. Big cars . . . big fighters. And now a big kid will opt to play football; we've fallen out of love with boxing because we haven't got heavyweights."

Yet we still have Ali-Frazier. "The myth is the experience," Sugar said. "People who were there will never let it go. It's ours."

New York Sports