This story originally appeared in the March 15, 1971 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Moving remorselessly forward, Joe Frazier, that gritty stump of a man, won a unanimous decision at Madison Square Garden on Monday night to become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Frazier not only beat Muhammad Ali to the punch, he licked him in the prophecy department. "Clay is good," he said beforehand, "but he isn't good enough to escape." He wasn't. Ali, in turn, billed the bout as The Return of the Dancing Master. It wasn't. Ali didn't get up on his toes and jab; he chose, disastrously, to hook with a hooker. By this, Ali gave away his 6½" advantage in reach.
Ali gave away much more by his bizarre charades—lying against the ropes, the pretty red tassels on his shoes drooping lifelessly; shouting sepulchrally to the press, "Nooo connntesssst"; beckoning Frazier to hit him; shaking his head defiantly when hit; tapping Frazier on the forehead as though testing for termites. But these acts, designed to steal time, failed in their purpose. Ali's time was past.
It was Frazier's hour, as became manifest in the 11th round, when a big hook left Ali rubber-legged. In the 12th Frazier folded Ali like a carpenter's rule with successive shots to the belly and head, and in the final round a sweeping left hook, which seemed to start at Frazier's shoe tops, put him down for a four-count, closing a reign of both majesty and mystery.
On the following pages are photographs by James Drake, George Kalinsky, Neil Leifer, Herb Scharfman and Tony Triolo and a report by Mark Kram.
'EVERYONE WILL REMEMBER WHAT HAPPENED'
He has always wanted the world as his audience, wanted the kind of attention that few men in history ever receive. So on Monday night it was his, all of it, the intense hate and love of his own nation, the singular concentration and concern of multitudes in every corner of the earth, all of it suddenly blowing across a squared patch of light like a relentless wind. It was his moment, one of the great stages of our time, and it is a matter of supreme irony that after all the years that went info constructing this truly special night Muhammad Ali was in fact carefully securing the details for his own funereal end—in front of the millions he moved deeply.
The people, he said, would be in the streets of Africa and Asia waiting for word of what happened, and what they have heard—by now—is what they never will really believe. The sudden evil of Joe Frazier's left hook, Ali's bold effort to steal time by theatrics, his wicked early pace that left him later without any guns and his insistence on hooking with a hooker (a bad bit of business)—all of this combined to provide the push for his long, long fall from invincibility. It left Frazier at last the only heavyweight champion of the world and the survivor of one of the most destructive fights among big men in decades.
The first dramatic damage to Ali came in the 11th round when Frazier hooked him to the head and followed with a cruel left to the body that sent Ali rolling back to a neutral corner, a man who seemed caught in an immense, violent wave. He hung on, but his eyes took on a terrible softness and they were never the same again. At the bell, water was thrown in his face before he could reach his corner. There, with his medicine man, Bundini, desperately trying to inflame him, and his trainer, Angelo Dundee, shaking a finger frantically in his face, he was pasted back to a semblance of one piece. As he came out for the 12th, one could see that something was wrong with the right side of his face; it was swelling rapidly and his jaw seemed broken.
He spent almost the entire 13th round in a neutral corner, but he was not active and appeared in a trance, oblivious to the hoarse scream of Bundini: "You got God in your corner, Champ!" Ali responded in the 14th, but not convincingly, even though he did win the round; by now both fighters, their bodies graphically spent, were continually draped over each other, looking like big fish who had wallowed onto a beach. Then, in the 15th, Frazier exploded the last shells from that big left gun. It was near the middle of the round, and the left boomed into Ali's face (see cover), sending him to the canvas with his head ricocheting frightfully off the floor, his feet waving in the air. He got up and finished the round, but he had lost.
The work of Frazier—his glinting animalism, his intensity of purpose—cannot be minimized or in any way discredited. This was not a negative victory; his smothering pressure contributed much to Ali's weird behavior, the options Ali took in strategy and the exhaustion that began to devour him about the sixth round.
The bout was exciting, theatrical and bizarre—and a mild disappointment to some. "Neither fighter did well what he does best," said Cus D'Amato, boxing's mad scientist. "Frazier, the body puncher, went more effectively to the head, and Clay, the dancer, was flat-footed. But either because of this, or despite it, it was drama of the highest order."
It was obvious what Ali had in mind from the opening bell and, perhaps knowing what he had left in him, he followed the only course open: attack this machine early, shake his confidence. It was a sound tactic; early is when Frazier is most accessible. From the start Ali used flamboyance in an attempt to deflate Frazier's spirit. When both arrived in the ring, he danced across it with a smile on his face, brushing abrasively close to Frazier, almost up against him, but the ploy appeared fruitless. In the first moments Ali began doing what he would repeat throughout the early rounds of the fight: every time Frazier's left hook caught him he would shake his head vigorously, telling his audience that the punch did not bother him, telling Frazier that he was wasting his time.
Ali was effective for a while, and there was a clean line to his work. The jab probed and distributed pain and perplexed Frazier. Joe seemed to be trying to stay low, but more and more he began to raise himself into the range of Ali's firepower. Soon, however, it was clear that he was not doing this out of confusion but by design. He was going to take what Ali had to give, and in so doing—he undoubtedly thought—he could intimidate Ali. Frazier took it all—the hard jabs by Ali and that flashing right that traveled instantly behind it. In the third round Joe came out smiling, as he often does at this point in his fights, and he beckoned for Ali to come out to meet him.
A long night was still ahead for Frazier, because this was an Ali determined to put a muzzle on all the mouths that have questioned his courage, his will, his ability to handle pain. "That man," Frazier said later, his own face covered with pyramids of hurt, "can sure take some punches. I went to the country, back home, for some of the shots I hit him with." And Ali's jab faded like a sick flower. His once remarkable legs gone, his arms heavy, he hung on the ropes and spent long and dangerous periods in the corners; it was astonishing that he escaped serious damage. "The way they were hitting," said Referee Arthur Mercante, "I was surprised that it went 15. They threw some of the best punches I've ever seen."
"Everyone will remember what happened here," Ali had said before the fight. "What I want them to remember is my art and my science."
They will remember. Though not as he intended.