THE FIGHT OF THE CENTURY:
ALI VS. FRAZIER, MARCH 8, 1971
by Michael Arkush
John Wiley and Sons
272 pp. $25.95
review by Paul-John Ramos
When Muhammad Ali prepared to box Joe Frazier in March 1971, few, if any, could have foreseen the worldwide admiration that surrounds him today. Ali, who turned 68 in January, began as ‘merely’ an athlete but came to represent far more through his dynamic personality, various connections in the religious and civil rights arenas, and his status as the most naturally gifted heavyweight in boxing history.
Ali’s rise to superstardom was one of fate. It was by chance that on the verge of social upheaval, a Louisville boy named Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. took up boxing after going to a neighborhood fair on his bicycle and returning to find the bike stolen. Under the early tutelage of a police officer named Joe Martin, Clay drew notice as an amateur, eventually winning a light heavyweight gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960 and becoming a prime contender for the world heavyweight championship.
Seven years after winning in Rome, Clay had become Muhammad Ali, a prominent figure in Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, and was wondering if he would face imprisonment for evading the draft or simply return to boxing with the crisis in Vietnam growing worse by the hour. Amidst the Johnson presidency and the Edsel-like war tailored by Robert McNamara, Ali was gradually winning over those who had backed entry to Southeast Asia and denounced him as a traitor. Fate stepped in again when the City of Atlanta, under the brow of segregationist governor Lestor Maddox, was looking for an image change in the umpteenth incarnation of a New South. Ali was given clearance to fight by the Atlanta Board of Aldermen and he, at last, resumed his career.
Ali, who first changed his name to Cassius X after defeating Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship, had a legitimate claim to the title since losing it through office memoranda rather than inside of the ring. Upon his refusal to enter the military in 1967, Ali was stripped of his crown and lost his boxing license, keeping him out of the sport for three years. Joe Frazier, a fellow Olympic gold medalist from South Carolina, emerged as Ali’s replacement – at least until Ali obtained permission to fight and matters were settled between them.
Frazier was respected in boxing circles but never gained the wide popularity that other champions have enjoyed. One reason was the quiet, secluded dedication of Frazier to his craft. The other was Ali’s constant presence in newspapers, magazines, and electronic broadcasts. Frazier, who trained in a closed shop under manager Yancey Durham, watched Ali dominate the headlines through his bravado and endless rhyme. Even championship boxers during the 1960s and 70s were totally overshadowed by Ali and Frazier was no exception.
As Ali’s reputation grew in both sports and politics, so did the animosity between Ali and Frazier. Ali was a dream for the journalists who flocked to his gym sessions and called him daily for interviews. He promoted himself as a champion of the Black race and compared his image to that of Frazier, whom the former champ labeled as ‘ugly,’ ‘ignorant,’ ‘the white man’s champion,’ and an ‘Uncle Tom.’ Whether Ali was serious in his attacks or using a misguided approach to sell tickets, the smear campaign brought resentment from Frazier that has never truly healed. Frazier, who could not match Ali in his talent for grabbing the media’s attention, was determined to put the talker back in his place, even if it meant absorbing a large number of punches.
Like a completely divided America, Ali and Frazier embodied two completely different ways of life. On one side was Ali, a Muslim convert from Louisville who represented the growing opposition to Vietnam and ‘embalmed’ politics left over from the 1950s. On the other was Frazier, a native of Beaufort, South Carolina, one of America’s poorest towns, who was raised by sharecroppers and later worked in a Philadelphia slaughterhouse to make ends meet. In a strange way, Frazier came to represent the establishment or, at least, a tradition of the American workingman that believes in paying harsh dues to achieve success.
By the time Ali received permission to fight from the City of Atlanta in August 1970, the situations in Vietnam and on the civil rights front were at fever pitch. The Nixon administration had done little to relieve matters, with protests widening and city blocks still lying in ashes. In his three years out of boxing, Ali spent time lecturing on college campuses and dealt with a suspension by the Nation of Islam after hinting at his desire to resume fighting. Ali, at one point, seriously doubted a return to the sport, but as 1969 ended, his prospects looked brighter.
Frazier, who defeated Buster Mathis and Jimmy Ellis to become heavyweight champion, was equally as hopeful for Ali’s career to resume. Though Frazier was earning considerable money (including over $300,000 to fight Ellis), he most coveted a payday with Ali. Promoters also sensed the goldmine that would result from live ticket sales, closed circuit broadcasts, and agreements with foreign television networks. The millionaires and billionaires began jockeying for position. At one point, the list of major players included Bob Arum, a future promoter of Ali and Oscar De La Hoya, and Fred Hofheinz, co-leasee of the Houston Astrodome. When the dust cleared, Ali-Frazier I was backed by Jack Kent Cooke and Jerry Perenchio, whose investment group shelled out an unprecedented $2.5 million to both fighters.
The United States provided a backdrop for Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier’s first meeting that is unlikely to be seen again. Ali and Frazier, who were friends in years past, had become staunch enemies. They represented polar opposites in politics, religion, and the question of what constitutes a man. They were also undefeated in a combined 57 professional bouts, had both won a gold medal at the Olympic Games, and made equally relevant claims to the heavyweight championship, the most treasured prize in sports, at a time when athletics were reaching an economic pinnacle.
Michael Arkush, who has authored a 272-page account of The Fight, readily admits that he did not witness it firsthand. He was only in his thirteenth year at the time and has since gone on to write The Last Season with Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson and Rush!, an unauthorized biography of Rush Limbaugh. Drawing inspiration from a chance meeting with Ali at Miami Beach in 1970, Arkush pores over forty years of documented history to give Ali-Frazier I its proper context.
Arkush’s inability to attend the fight places him at a significant disadvantage to writers such as Bert Sugar and Jerry Izenberg, who have known the fighters as individuals and can immediately relate to that evening’s drama. Neither did Arkush speak with Ali or Frazier for his book, although he has met with important figures such as Georgia state congressman Leroy Johnson, Ali’s long-time trainer Angelo Dundee, physician Ferdie Pacheco, and broadcaster Larry Merchant, who invested in Frazier. Arkush has also vigorously researched books, newspapers, and magazines from the era in an attempt to recapture its prevailing spirit.
Any historical writing that combines sociology with sports is a daunting project and Arkush fully acquits himself. The Fight of the Century is concise, well-organized, and generates immediate interest. Its first two chapters (60 pages) are devoted to Ali’s earlier career, his standoff with military authorities, and his struggles to obtain a boxing license. It is easy for a figure like Ali to dominate matters, but Arkush balances the text with chapter three, simply titled ‘Joe.’ We are introduced to Joe Frazier, perhaps history’s most underrated heavyweight champion. Though nowhere as colorful as Ali, Frazier’s life story is itself remarkable, having overcome a poverty-stricken background to win the 1964 heavyweight gold medal in Tokyo and become one of the ten greatest heavyweights to enter a ring while suffering from legal blindness in his left eye.
Once these men are profiled, Arkush describes the events leading up to March 8, 1971. Chapter four, titled ‘The Tune-ups,’ describes opponents and fights that came before Ali-Frazier I. ‘Jack, Jerry, and the Deal’ (chapter five) and ‘The Show’ (chapter six) cover the economic and promotional aspects of the fight, including how Jack Kent Cooke and Jerry Perenchio became the last men standing in a field of ravenous businessmen. There is also an interesting account of why Howard Cosell, Ali’s broadcasting foil, was passed over for Don Dunphy in announcing the fight.
The remaining chapters move away from social commentary and focus upon boxing as a sporting event. Chapter seven (‘The Countdown’) delves into training camps, ticket sales, and other preparations. Chapters eight and nine, titled ‘March 8’ and ‘The Fight,’ give solid details of the happenings before, during, and after the famous bout at Madison Square Garden. The concluding chapter, ‘After the Fight,’ deals with Ali-Frazier I’s aftermath, including the two rematches in 1974 and 1975 that were physically and psychologically damaging for all involved. 15 black-and-white photographs, including three of the fight, are provided as a centerpiece.
Arkush writes in a plain, journalistic style, leaving aside Norman Mailer’s bombast and Bert Sugar’s endearing wisecracks. He is sometimes guilty of a runaway sentence and uses catchy phrases once too often, but this does little to upset the narrative flow. Arkush takes a chronological approach to the story, which is the sensible approach to an event that built in anticipation over several years.
Not witnessing an event sometimes lends a writer objectivity and fresher perspectives. Arkush, however, does not bring any new perspectives to the table in The Fight of the Century. The significance of Ali-Frazier I has not been up for debate and Arkush’s book is mostly a straight-up account of people and happenings. Except for the occasional tidbit, there is nothing extraordinary to discover here and those with considerable knowledge of the fight will judge Arkush’s storytelling to be old hat.
The Fight of the Century, however,succeeds in taking us back to a specific time and place in sports that will most likely never be duplicated. For those with limited knowledge of sports history and Ali-Frazier I’s importance in wider sociopolitical terms, Arkush’s book can be of major comprehensive value.