In April 2020, ESPN expanded its televised fight library with the first airing in more than thirty years of “The Fight of the Century” and addition to their available streaming content. No, it wasn’t a hard fight to find in the age of YouTube, but it was great to see it fully, formally integrated into 21st century viewing options.
On Sunday, ABC took it a step further.
ABC broadcast a full digital remastering of the fight along with footage from Wide World of Sports and contemporary commentary. All of it is to commemorate today’s 50th Anniversary of the first clash between then-champion Joe Frazier and former champion Muhammad Ali.
It was a fight unlike any other.
Sure, there may be fights some find more action packed. Ali and Frazier’s own third clash was arguably more brutal and exacting. There is a small selection of bouts with similar historical resonance. Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries and Joe Louis-Max Schmeling II quickly come to mind.
None combine both in quite the same epic fashion.
Both men were undefeated. Both had won Olympic Gold Medals, Ali in 1960 at light heavyweight and Frazier in 1964 at heavyweight. Global attention couldn’t have been higher. The highest honor in the pro game, the heavyweight championship of the world, was on the line
Then they delivered more than anyone could have asked.
The airing of a remastered version of the fight and this golden anniversary brought to mind the question of what it would be like to be previewing this fight right now. How deep and impressive were the resumes and credentials of Ali and Frazier already heading into their first encounter on Monday, March 8, 1971?
Let’s get into it.
Stats and Stakes Heading Into the Ring
Current Title: World/WBA/WBC Heavyweight (1970-Present, 1 Defense)
Previous Titles: NYSAC Heavyweight (1968-70, 5 Defenses)
Height: 5’11 ½
Weight: 205 ½ lbs.
Hails from: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Record: 26-0, 23 KO
Record in Major Title Fights: 7-0, 6 KO
Last Five Opponents: 165-16-4 (.903)
Notable Outcomes, Ring Rated Foes: #9 Oscar Bonavena SD10; #4 George Chuvalo TKO4; #10 Buster Mathis TKO11; #4 Manuel Ramos TKO2; #3 Oscar Bonavena UD15; #3 Jerry Quarry RTD7; #3 Jimmy Ellis RTD4; World Light Heavyweight Champion Bob Foster KO2
Current Title: None
Previous Titles: World/WBC Heavyweight (1964-70, 9 Defenses); WBA Heavyweight (1964; 1967, 2 Defenses)
Weight: 215 lbs.
Hails from: Louisville, Kentucky
Record: 31-0, 25 KO
Ring Ranking: #1
Record in Major Title Fights: 10-0, 8 KO
Last Five Opponents: 263-26-10 (.896)
Notable Outcomes, Ring Rated Foes: #10 Alejandro Lavorante KO5; #5 Archie Moore TKO4; #3 Doug Jones; #9 Henry Cooper TKO5; World Champion Sonny Liston RTD6; #1 Sonny Liston KO1; #1 Floyd Patterson TKO12; #9 George Chuvalo UD15; #4 Henry Cooper TKO6; #3 Karl Mildenberger TKO12; #3 Cleveland Williams TKO3; #1 Ernie Terrell UD15; #2 Zora Folley KO7; #1 Jerry Quarry RTD3; #3 Oscar Bonavena TKO15
Look again at the road to their first showdown. The depth of opposition for each relative to their field stands out. Sure, not every win over a top ten contender is memorable. While old issues of Ring Magazine are only one gauge of any given time, they are a solid snapshot in most eras of where things were perceived to stand.
By said measure Frazier, in 26 starts, was 7-0 against top ten heavyweights with an additional victory over Foster that is in many ways reminiscent of Mike Tyson’s destruction of Michael Spinks almost two decades later.
Ali was 15-0 in 31 fights, a near fifty-percent of his career to then. It was a pace Ali would continue to keep for the duration of his career, posting more than 30 wins against rated opposition or reigning champions before he was done.
Compare that to today’s perceived top three heavyweights: World Champion Tyson Fury, unified titlist Anthony Joshua, and former titlist Deontay Wilder. Their combined total record is 96-2-2. Their combined record against top ten foes rated by the same measurement, Ring Magazine, is 11-2-1. Joshua has the fewest starts of the three and the most wins, six, while Fury has the two most significant victories in unseating Wladimir Klitschko for the lineal crown and stopping Wilder in their 2020 rematch.
Resumes don’t win fights of course but it illustrates a variety and depth to Ali’s record that stands apart from all but a handful of careers, heavyweight or otherwise, in the gloved era. Ali ended a three-year layoff and went straight at two rugged, legitimate contenders right out of the gate to get ready for Frazier. Ali was beatable on the right night, as Frazier would prove in a first bout that left both men hospitalized, but he challenged himself in a way few can match and no one we’re watching right now is even sniffing at.
There are other points fans may find familiar. Anyone who sees shenanigans from the bodies who govern boxing as a more modern item can be quickly disavowed on the road to “The Fight of the Century.” Ali would be stripped by the WBA between Liston fights and not regain their honors until defeating Ernie Terrell years later and stripped by everyone but Ring after the Zora Folley fight in 1967 due to issues related to his draft stance. Ring maintained recognition of Ali until he announced a frustrated retirement in 1970.
Frazier wasn’t ‘undisputed’ until he defeated Ellis following the start of what would be a brief Ali retirement. Frazier first won recognition from the state of New York with a win over Buster Mathis when he did not enter a WBA tournament, won by Ellis, to crown a new champion. Boxing is far more fractured and silly about this sort of thing today, but the idea of building to a showdown for the ‘real’ champion wasn’t any more new in 1971 than it is now.
In this case, the idea of who really was the champion had extra weight. Frazier had virtually cleaned out the class by the time he squared off with Ali, but Ali never lost his title in the ring. Their showdown, neither with a loss on their ledger, amidst a backdrop of broader social discussion, was a perfect storm in ring annals.
If anyone missed it Sunday, ESPN has it available in their streaming archives. Feel free to watch it again or for the first time; watch Frazier survive as lethal a triple left hook sequence as one can find; watch Ali survive a tumultuous eleventh; watch the knockdown in round fifteen.
It all stands the test of time.
It was the greatest night of them all.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org