By Tony Paige
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I can’t believe than 40 years have passed since the greatest sporting event has come and gone.
I’m sure some of you will differ on sporting events that in your mind were bigger, but nothing has ever or will ever come close to that magical night of March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden.
Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought for the undisputed heavyweight title. Back then, the heavyweight title was still the most precious of all titles in sport.
Ali was 29, undefeated in 31 fights with 25 knockouts and was an Olympic Gold Medalist (1960).
Frazier was 27, undefeated in 26 fights with 23 knockouts and was an Olympic Gold Medalist (1964).
Both were proud black men but that’s where the similarities ended.
Ali, ” the Butterfly,” was a lightning rod for controversy especially for refusing to be inducted into the US Army during the Vietnam War era. He stated, “He had no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” In the ring, he possessed lightning quick feet and hands and a rapier-like jab.
Frazier, “Smokin’ Joe,” was much more reserved and didn’t make outrageous statements about his opponents. He just did his job in the ring with a bludgeoning left hook.
Ali and Frazier were like oil and water and still are to this day.
Ali made outrageous, demeaning personal statements about Frazier, even after Frazier lent Ali money while he wasn’t allowed to fight for three and a half years due to his suspension for refusing military inducted.
So here we are 40 years later.
I remember most of that day as if it was yesterday.
I had brought my $25 closed-circuit ticket the week before.
When I got out of Taft High School in the Bronx, I left for a long-since demolished RKO Theater near the “Hub” at 149 St. and Third Ave. The Third Ave ” El” was still rattling above the Bronx back then. It would be replaced by the 55X Bus.
I arrived at the theater around 6 pm and was about the 25th person on line. Number 24 was a high school classmate named Lloyd (forgot his last name). We had no idea either one of us was going to the fight.
It was bitterly cold and windy that night and they didn’t let us in until 8 pm.
In today’s world of pay-per-view, you get God-awful undercards while awaiting the main event.
On March 8, once we got in, you got nothing.
No undercard, no features on the fighters, not even a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
We sat for about three hours when finally some action appeared on the screen.
No, not boxing action, but a large grid pattern went up with a slow-moving cursor going back and forth, then up to the next level.
After a while, the audience started cheering for the cursor.
Everyone was getting more and more excited because we all knew that Ali had promised the closed circuit fans that he would have a special message for us and only us.
As the moment approached and the screen flickered to life in the now smoke-filled theater, there was Ali in his glory, only the picture was in black and white. He was holding a piece of paper with his prediction.
We saw his mouth moving, but there was no sound!
Ali with no sound was like Picasso with no paint.
I think the paper said Ali in 7 and the place went nuts.
What can I tell you. You can watch it on You Tube, but I watched Ali being Ali in the beginning of the fight and then the will of Frazier started to come on pummeling Ali to the body and head.
Ali kept using his jab, but it never seemed to slow down the on-coming Frazier.
They didn’t call him Smokin’ Joe for nothing.
Entering the 15th and final round — yes, championship fights were that long back then –
you could feel the electricity in the theater and I could’ve sworn I heard a thunder crack when Frazier landed that whistling left hook and dropped Ali on his backside.
I was devastated because I was rooting for Ali, but I also knew any chance of an Ali win was gone.
After the fight, people were arguing that Ali had won, but the two judges and referee Arthur Mercante, Sr. had the right call for Frazier. Yes, the ref had a vote in the scoring back then.
I said my goodbye to Lloyd and waited for the 26 bus to go home.
I still remember a man in a wheelchair came up to me and said, “I’ll bet you a quarter I know who won the fight.”
I said sure.
He said, “Frazier.”
I gave him the quarter and he wheeled off into the night and I stood in cold waiting for the bus as the El rumbled on by. I was glad he didn’t make the bet for my coat. I would’ve have taken the bet and went home freezing because I just didn’t care after seeing Ali lose.
They would fight two more times. Ali winning both times, once again in the Garden and their epic battle in Manila.
Heavyweight champs have come and gone as has closed circuit TV and pay-per-view just isn’t the same.
Ali-Frazier on March 8, 1971, was a world-wide event. It was bigger than boxing. It was bigger than the World Cup, the World Series and even the Super Bowl.
It made the entire sporting world and even those who didn’t give a left hook about the Sweet Science stop and take notice.
For one glorious night, Ali-Frazier was the end all, be all of sports.
It was a night that has never happened before and won’t ever happen again.
Do you agree with Tony that Ali-Frazier I was the greatest sporting event? Can you believe 40 years have passed? Let us know in the comments below…