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Long before Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao, Madison Square Garden hosted 'Fight of the Century'

Joe Frazier stands over Muhammed Ali in the

Joe Frazier stands over Muhammed Ali in the 15th round of their heavyweight title fight at New York's Madison Square Garden. (March 8, 1971) Credit: AP

On May 2, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao will engage in the fight of this century.

But Mayweather and Pacquiao will have a long way to go to supplant "The Fight of the Century" -- the first meeting between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. That bout occurred on March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden. It was the first time in boxing history that a match was made between two undefeated fighters who could lay claim to the heavyweight title.

The Ali-Frazier fight will be featured Friday night as part of a new series on MSG Network, "The Garden's Defining Moments." It is a 20-part documentary series celebrating some of the greatest moments at Madison Square Garden over the course of its 135-year history.

The first 10 episodes began airing in early 2015, with the final 10 rolling out at a later date.

When Ali fought Frazier at the Garden 44 years ago, the ramifications reached far beyond the boxing ring. The fight crossed cultural, racial and religious boundaries. It was the most anticipated heavyweight title fight since Joe Louis defeated Max Schmeling in their 1938 rematch at Yankee Stadium.

So much has been written and produced about Ali-Frazier I that it's difficult to come up with something new. However, in this broadcast, MSG managed to shine light on a pair of small but interesting tidbits. (This does not suggest that these items were not reported at the time, but both are lost in the fight's historical narrative.)

According to promoter Jerry Perenchio, the fight's main financier, Jack Kent Cooke, wanted the fight at the Great Western Forum. But Frazier had suffered an eye injury earlier in his career and could not get a boxing license in California, thus paving the way for the fight to take place at the Garden.

The most widely circulated broadcast of the fight does not include the entire ring announcements. Thus Johnny Addie's classic line, "Ladies and gentleman, we are not going to introduce the celebrities at ringside tonight, because everybody is here tonight," has been lost to history. Not any more.

It was that kind of event. There were more than 700 working press credentials issued for the fight. Barbra Streisand, Bill Cosby, Sammy Davis Jr., Hugh Hefner, Dustin Hoffman and Diana Ross were ringside. Burt Lancaster was part of the closed circuit broadcast team and Frank Sinatra had a position along the ring apron as a photographer for Life magazine.

MSG recounts all of it wonderfully in this half-hour segment. The archival footage is always a treat and the story is told through interviews that include children of both fighters, historians and legendary former boxers George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Chuck Wepner, Sugar Ray Leonard, Ray Mancini and Mike Tyson.

At the time, it was the richest fight in history, with both men guaranteed a record $2.5-million. (Mayweather and Pacquiao are expected to divvy up a $200 million purse.) The atmosphere in the Garden was electric. But most importantly, the athletes in the ring delivered a scintilating 15-round slugfest. Frazier put an exclamation point on the night at 2:34 of the 15th round by dropping Ali with a left hook. The knockdown secured Frazier's unanimous decision.

However, the essential message of MSG's piece is that without the performance in the ring, the fight would be remembered as just another over-hyped sporting event.

As the broadcast draws to a close, Tyson calls Ali-Frazier I the standard by which all heavyweight fights are judged.

Showtime analyst and boxing historian Steve Farhood says, "When fighters rise to the occasion there is nothing in sports quite like it."

And finally, former sports columnist and recently retired HBO broadcaster Larry Merchant says, "It's one of those rare occasions where the highest expectations are exceeded."

New York Sports