It was called the Fight of the Century -- or, simply, The Fight -- and it took place at Madison Square Garden on Mar. 8, 1971.
Muhammad Ali (31-0, 25 KOs) and Joe Frazier (26-0, 23 KOs), two undefeated heavyweights with legitimate claims to the championship, met in an event that dominated the national consciousness for months.
The event itself was the hottest ticket in town and bred a circus-like atmosphere at the Garden. Among the many celebrities in attendance was Frank Sinatra, who snapped photographs for LIFE magazine after failing to procure a ringside seat.
Also near ringside were Norman Mailer, Woody Allen and Miles Davis (below).
Artist LeRoy Neiman, who designed the official fight program (below), painted the action from ringside.
The fight managed to exceed all expectations, a taut struggle filled with back-and-forth action.
Frazier held a narrow lead entering the 15th and final round, but punctuated his iconic victory with a TNT-packed left hook that floor Ali for just the third time in his career.
After Ali made it to the final bell, the judges made it official: Joe Frazier retained the title by a unanimous decision.
What might the hype of Frazier-Ali I felt like today? SI's Richard Hoffer, writing on the 40th anniversary of the event, imagined.
Oh, my. Ali-Frazier, which even then was more a cultural touchstone than a boxing match, would probably paralyze us if it were held today, leveraging its various themes of race and politics on our social networking fulcrums. America would have to close for business to properly attend to this frenzy. Ashton Kutcher has 6.3 million Twitter followers? Ali would crash the Internet with his feeds (@smokinJoe is so ugly he should donate his face to @BureauofWildlife. #gonnawhupya).
While it promised sufficient sporting spectacle and mystery (could Ali reclaim the grace of his youth and now, nearing 30, reclaim the title that many thought was still rightfully his?), the fight also operated as a social ballot box. Ali, who’d been a sort of political prisoner, commanded the support of every freethinker in the country and beyond, striking his revolutionary stance. In addition, he somehow cast a fight between two black men as a racial referendum, a puzzled and comically outraged Frazier now a stand-in for the status quo and the white man as well.
All this was accomplished with the primitive promotional platforms at hand: newspapers, radio and talk shows. The intrigue was still enough to make the fight the hottest ticket of a lifetime, possibly the most glamour-struck event ever. The excitement was overwhelming, even far beyond the Garden, but can you imagine what it might have been like if Ali, the ultimate pitchman, had, say, a Facebook page? If we’re so eager to exploit celebrity that a semifamous athlete like Chad Ochocinco has his own reality show, then you can be certain Ali would have had his own network long before Oprah.
Then again, how could our digital applications improve upon the analog beauty of their struggles that night, an eye-popping brutality that Frazier narrowly won, a contest of such evenly matched wills, such equal desperation that the words Ali-Frazier have come to signify a kind of ruinous self-sacrifice? The old ways are not necessarily the best, but once a generation, anyway, they’re good enough.
The cover of that week's Sports Illustrated was simple but powerful -- yet Ali's legend had only just begun to bloom.