Bob Arum was a promoter, attorney and friend to Muhammad Ali, but 50 years after Ali’s "Fight of the Century" against Joe Frazier, there is one thing about Ali’s legacy the famed promoter cannot forgive.
"The biggest blot on Ali’s memory is how he treated Joe Frazier when they were competing against each other," Arum said on Thursday. "Ali shouldn’t have been and couldn’t have been proud of what he did and said."
Arum called it "despicable" and "uncalled for."
This was on a video news conference organized by Madison Square Garden to mark the anniversary of the first Ali-Frazier fight, held at the Garden on March 8, 1971.
Arum was joined by boxers Larry Holmes, Gerry Cooney and Bernard Hopkins in reminiscing about the fight, which pitted two undefeated heavyweights in a bout with racial, political and cultural implications.
Ali, who lost a 15-round unanimous decision, helped to promote the fight by disparaging Frazier for his abilities, appearance, style, intelligence level and alleged ties to the white establishment.
"Ali used that, which is really the thing I regret most," Arum, 89, said. "Ali sensed what was happening and then he categorized Frazier as the ‘white man’s fighter’ and that started [calling him] 'Uncle Tom.' . . . Ali used that to get under Frazier’s skin.
"But the event was so big worldwide really because of politics. If you think politics today is polarizing, it was as polarizing in that time."
Arum got to know Frazier well in later years, and said, "Joe constantly talked to me about how much he was hurt by Ali’s dialogue . . . Joe Frazier resented, and rightly so, how Ali treated him."
Holmes, who knew both fighters well and defeated Ali in a 1980 bout, said, "Ali didn’t care. Ali didn’t have any feelings when he said that about Joe . . . Joe was a nice guy. Joe says to me with tears in his eyes, ‘Why did he have to say that about me?’"
Ali’s trash talk added to sports fans’ divide over the fight, which is recalled for generating as much hype as any event in Garden history, one that drew celebrities from across the cultural spectrum.
Frazier, who was based in Philadelphia, insisted on the fight being held at the Garden, where ringside seats went for $150 and closed-circuit theater tickets to watch remotely for $25, both higher than was customary in that era.
Ali had fought twice in 1970 after a 3 1/2-year layoff upon refusing induction into military service and having his title stripped while being denied boxing licenses.
Cooney, who is from Huntington, was only 14 at the time, and said he was more interested in the fight than in the politics surrounding it.
Hopkins, also 14 then, is from Philadelphia and was a big Frazier fan. He was aware of the cultural implications as well.
"It played its role," he said. "It played its time in its time."
Holmes was asked how he would have done against Ali and Frazier with all three in their primes.
"I would have won both of those fights," he said. "The referee would have had to stop the fight with Joe Frazier because I would have hit him with that jab . . . I would have beaten both those guys."
"If you ask me who is the next Ali or who is the next Frazier, there ain't no next," Arum said.
Said Hopkins, "Those two will joined at the hip until the end of the world."