...millions around the world will lean forward, the anticipation over, the moment now at hand when two of the best their sport has known settle who deserves the title that only one can have
March 08, 1971

He will be the first in the ring, so look at him with honest eyes because you probably will never see such impeccable talent again. Assessed by the familiar standards—punch, size, speed, intelligence, command and imagination—he is without peer and there is nothing he cannot or will not do in a ring. In the esthetics of boxing, Muhammad Ali transcends the fighter. He is a Balanchine, a Dali, the ultimate action poet who has lifted so primordial an act to eloquent, sometimes weird, beauty. But for all his gifts, it is his fear of failure, of the moment, that is his real strength. All fighters have it, but few shape it into such a positive force. It seems to be the catalyst, the thing that detonates his intense public displays, his psychological war dance that opens the floodgates for his talent.

Move across now to the other corner and there you will see the finest gladiator—in the purest sense of the word—in heavyweight history. To picture Joe Frazier one must recall what happened to Jerry Quarry when he elected to work within Frazier's perimeter. It was like the Wehrmacht crossing into Russia—and the end was the same. Even the most cynical of boxing people look at Frazier and rhapsodize about his drilling aggression, his volume of threshing-blade punches that make you forget his short arms. He does not have the single, crumpling punch of Marciano, or the sudden ferocity of Dempsey, but he is more mobile than either, and much better to watch. It is that animal joy that he exudes; one has the feeling that he has watched a man bring honesty, a nobility of spirit to his work.

Like deadly weaponry projected from opposite ends of the earth, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier collide Monday night at Madison Square Garden for the final sorting out of the heavyweight championship of the world. In itself, that is enough, but there is much more here than a title. This is the international sporting event of our age, one of the great dramas of our time created by a unique permutation of factors: Ali's unjust exile, his sudden pyrotechnic presence and the political climate that demanded that return; the $2.5 million for each fighter, a bold, brilliant promotional gamble; the beautiful evolution of Joe Frazier, and the reality that both Ali and Frazier might retire no matter what happens.

The thrust of this fight on the public consciousness is incalculable. It has been a ceaseless whir that seems to have grown in decibel with each new soliloquy by Ali, with each dead calm promise by Frazier. It has magnetized the imagination of ring theorists, and flushed out polemicists of every persuasion. It has cut deep into the thicket of our national attitudes, and it is a conversational imperative everywhere—from the gabble of big-city salons and factory lunch breaks rife with unreasoning labels, to ghetto saloons with their own false labels.

No two peoples consider or respond to the ring with the same emotion. It is a rite of blood and manhood to the Latins, and what they bring to it is hysteria. Because of their innate, quiet pugnacity, the English see it intimately, the same way that the French see themselves pridefully in the works of Racine and Moli√®re at the Comédie Fran√ßaise. As for the Swedes, who banned it, they never could make up their minds about the ring, and with their heavy sadness they always seem suspended between shame and a zealous need to be in communion with a victim. How the Russians approach the ring cannot be gauged accurately, but there seems small doubt about what they would do with a champion in the propaganda market.

Americans are the most curious in their reaction to a heavyweight title bout, especially one of this scope. To some, the styles and personalities of the fighters seem to provide the paraphernalia of a forum; the issue becomes a sieve through which they feel compelled to pour all of their fears and prejudices. Still others find it a convenient opportunity to dispense instant good and evil, right and wrong. The process is as old as boxing: the repelling bluff and bluster of John L. against the suavity and decorum of Gentleman Jim; the insidious malevolence of Johnson vs. the stolidity of Jeffries; the evil incarnate Liston against the vulnerable Patterson. It is a fluid script, crossing over religion, war, politics, race and much of what is so terribly human in all of us.

The fight—mainly an athletic spectacular for many, though it provokes almost unbearable anticipation—also appears to have released manic emotion. The disputation of the New Left comes at Frazier with its spongy thinking and pushbutton passion and seeks to color him white, to denounce him as a capitalist dupe and a Fifth Columnist to the black cause. Those on the other fringe, just as blindly rancorous, see in Ali all that is unhealthy in this country, which in essence means all they will not accept from a black man. For still others, numbed by the shock of a sharply evolving society, he means confusion; he was one of the first to start pouring their lemonade world down the drain.

Among the blacks there is only a whisper of feeling for Frazier, who is deeply cut by their reaction. He is pinned under the most powerful influence on black thought in the country. The militants view Ali as the Mahdi, the one man who has circumvented what they believe to be an international white conspiracy. To the young he is identity, an incomparable hero of almost mythological dimension. They all need him badly, and they will not part with him easily. They know that if ever a fighter lived who could smash their symbol into fragments it is Joe Frazier. Out of anxiety, a sense of dread, they respond with the most synthetic of accusations: Frazier is the white man's champion, contrived and manipulated to destroy what is once again so close to the black man's heart and soul.

"When he gets to ringside," says Ali, "Frazier will feel like a traitor, though he's not. When he sees those women and those men aren't for him he'll feel a little weakening. He'll have a funny feeling, an angry feeling. Fear is going to come over him. He will realize that Muhammad Ali is the real champ. And he'll feel he's the underdog with the people. And he'll lose a little pride. The pressure will be so great that he'll feel it. Just gettin' in the ring alone with thousands and millions of eyes lookin' at you in those big arenas, and those hot lights comin' down that long aisle. It's going to be real frightful when he goes to his corner. He don't have nothing. But me...I have a cause."

It is one thing, however silly it may be, for the black man to impugn Frazier, but it is the worst sort of presumption for whites to denigrate him. Contrasted to Ali's past, Frazier's much more expresses the hard reality—other than politics—of what the black man's life has been and is. Quality of life to Frazier meant a plow, hours and days in the subtropical heat, calluses as big as hen eggs on his hands, and just enough to eat from a table crowded by a huge family. He was raised in South Carolina's Beaufort County—where the Government first gave black people "forty acres and a mule," where a recent survey found abysmal poverty and a high percentage of parasites in the blood of black children, more than 50% of whom are infected. "Was I a Tom there...then?" asks Frazier.

Ali's early days in Louisville were those of a gifted prodigy rather than those of a ghetto kid. He was from a small family, and he lived and ate well. Work was foreign to him; he spent the summers on the baronial manor of William J. Reynolds, where he concentrated on boxing, playing and occasionally removing the leaves from the Reynolds swimming pool. He was paid $7 a day and, according to a policeman named Joe Martin who shaped his early training, "He drank a gallon of milk a day. They had this milk machine out there where you just pulled the spigot." Ali seems to have been cut off from the harshness of black life. He talked big, dreamed great scenarios, and then found a way to translate them into reality—thanks to the sizable lift given to him by the same kind of white syndicate that has helped Frazier.

What the two reflect seems lamentably lost amid ideologies, emotions and a cross section of idiocy. Out of the ring, the true character of the fight is that Frazier and Ali encompass much of the best that sometimes is, and more often should be, in all of us—white and black. First, there is the courage of Ali, his obstinacy in the face of rank injustice and rejection. One may question his early motivation (which he himself did not fully understand) and, even now, ponder the argument that is so often posed about Thomas √† Becket: Is a man less a saint because he tries to be a saint? After a while it was obvious that Ali was seeking political martyrdom. He got it, and he grew steadily and genuinely with his deed. His vision came high. He lost a fortune in his exile, all for a cause that has been neutralized by the slide of events and the vise of opinion.

If Ali, as some admirers think, is a man of the future, a man whose wiring is so special that he reacts unlike any other yet seen, then Joe Frazier is a rare copy of the old, revered, indomitable man. He came north out of Beaufort, pointed himself in a direction, survived the corruptive influence of North Philadelphia and, with radar accuracy, reached his target. The country, the blacks, need an Ali, and so also is there much room for a Frazier. He feels just as deeply about his people, but he does not know the levers of political action, does not have the imagination for social combat. He understands only the right of the individual to be an individual, to survive and grow and be free of unfair pressures.

They have broken camp now, Ali in Miami, where critics blinked at his usual desultory gym work; Frazier in Philadelphia, where he was just as industrious as ever. But camps seldom reveal what will happen in a fight, and this one defies speculation. Certain points, however, may be made. Frazier must be extremely careful in the early rounds, especially in the first two, when he usually has not quite achieved the pulsating rhythm that is so vital to his style. One can expect Frazier to crowd Ali, to cut his punching radius and to deal with Ali's height by trying to beat him to the body and arms in the hope of bringing the head down to a more workable level. It is unlikely that Frazier will gamble with many right hands to the head, for this would expose him to Ali's wicked flash of a left hook. He will have to absorb some pain from Ali's jab, but he must slip it quickly or he will never be able to put his fight together.

The possibility of a Frazier decision is not as absurd as it may seem—aggressiveness means points and Joe will definitely take the fight to Ali. In the end, though, the question, which Ali alone can answer, is: How much does he have left? He gave us no real evidence in the Quarry fight. He did what he had to do, but he did not labor long enough for any studied appraisal. He did get a lot of work against Oscar Bonavena, and what was seen was hardly vintage Ali. "The Bonavena fight saved him," says his trainer, Angelo Dundee. "He needed a tough, long fight and he got it. He's never been better. He will be something to watch." Even if he is, Ali will still be in for a hard night against the stark fact of Frazier—cut off from the insulation of his fantasy world in which there is seldom any fact.

It behooves him to listen to the, wise counsel of his mother, who stopped off to kiss him goodby before leaving for the Bahamas.

"Baby," she said, "don't underestimate this Frazier. Work hard. I'm too nervous."

"Don't worry. Mom," Ali said. "I'll be in top shape. He's a bum."

"Sonny...he's no bum," she said, and then kissed him again.

Whatever the result, there is ample precedent to support the possible occurrence of the unexpected, the ludicrous, the bizarre, especially in an Ali fight. Going all the way back to Johnson-Willard, which many still believe Johnson threw, heavyweight title bouts have often been shrouded in controversy. It remained for Ali, with some help, to make the improbable familiar: the two Liston spectacles; the Chuvalo bout in which he allowed himself to be beaten to the body; the welter of claims of foul tactics when he was in with Terrell; and the night Patterson gimped about the ring because of a back injury and Ali cruelly taunted him. Critics and spectators are usually confused by these moments, and the reaction is often the growl of fix, for the most part an obsolete word in boxing today and certainly unrealistic in this fight.

Still, the prospect of odd incident, even a close decision for Frazier, offers the potential for trouble, and one can already sense sinister vibrations. So the fight cannot afford the slightest murkiness: no breaches of rules and no confused interpretation of the rules. The referee, who should be black and not allowed to score, must be in absolute control; for him, scoring is diverting. Any bungling, any laxity in supervision is beyond consideration.

So now, with only the hallucinatory ranting of Ali to amuse us and whip the passions of his legions, we can only wait for the climax of the ring's strangest era. Wait and wonder if Ali will fulfill what he calls his divine destiny and deliver as romantic a moment as sport has ever known. Wait and feel the loneliness of Joe Frazier's position, sense his quiet desperation to remove the last obstacle in his life. the drama tightens like a knotted rope in water.

TWO PHOTOS TWO PHOTOSBoth were smiling Olympic champions. Beyond that, they have little in common but excellence.