Special To BoxingScene.com
By Jack Cashill
No one in Ali's camp that March 1971 night in Madison Square Garden – Ali included – had ever seen a fighter more determined than Joe Frazier. Frazier gave up 10 pounds in weight, four inches in height, and nine inches in reach. To win, he was going to have to penetrate Ali's long-range defenses. To penetrate, he was going to have to take some serious hits. To survive those hits, he was going to have to bob and weave from the waist, do it repeatedly, and do it all night, an exertion of nearly inhuman persistence and energy.
In the first four rounds, Ali tried to inflict enough hurt on the dogged Frazier to knock the drive out of him, if not knock him out altogether. Frazier took his lumps, literally, and kept on coming. "Visions of King Kong atop the Empire State building deflecting the bullets of the attacking biplanes raced through my mind," remembers Dr. Ferdie Pacheco. Ali was winning the rounds, but losing the fight.
In round five, Frazier, still hammering, forced Ali off his toes and into the ropes where he set up shop. "Frazier falls in six," Ali had promised before the fight. Frazier would have none of it. Frazier shot out of his stool at the start of the sixth, shouting, "C'mon, sucker. This is the round. Let's go." In rounds seven and eight, as a form of psychological warfare, Ali started mocking Frazier and playing to the crowd.
"Don't you know I'm God," Ali yelled at Frazier to discourage him.
"God, you in the wrong place tonight," Frazier shot back. "I'm kicking ass and taking names."
In the ninth, Ali let it fly. Students of the sweet science consider it perhaps the most dazzling one-round exhibit they have ever seen. "Frazier's face was falling apart," remembers Pacheco. His resolve, however, was indestructible. If that kind of round could not plunge Frazier "into a well of despair," asks sportswriter Mark Kram, "what in heaven or hell would – point-blank fire from a gun muzzle?" Ali, who gives Frazier his due in the recounting of this fight, remembers thinking, "Now I know he'll die before he quits."
Pacheco judged Ali the winner of the 10-round fight. The problem for Ali was that this one had to go 15. Frazier would not stop. "Hit me, I hit you," Frazier muttered, "I don't give a damn. I come to destroy you, Clay."
The fight turned around in the 11th. The Ali camp called it the "Gruesome Eleventh." Frazier caught Ali with a wicked, crooked-arm left hook early in the round and sent him staggering to the ropes. "Ali's legs shake," commented Jose Torres from ringside. "He was tagged. That was to the button." Ali survived the round but lost all momentum. By the start of the 15th, more people at the Garden were chanting "Joe ... Joe ... Joe" than "Ali ... Ali ... Ali." "I'd proven I was no fodder for no Cassius Clay fairytale," remembers Frazier, who understood better than anyone how the Ali myth was being spun.
"The hell of the previous 14 rounds was meaningless," Pacheco observes. As most saw it, including my friends and I in a Gary, Ind., theater, the fight hung on the 15th. Frazier left nothing to doubt. He cleared the ground with both feet on a looping left hook that caught Ali flush on the right side of his face. "Boom," says Frazier with deadly glee, "and there it was – Mr. Him on his butt, his legs kicking up into the air – the very picture of a beaten man."
In Gary, we watched that knockdown on the large screen from the top of the aisle near the exit. Ali somehow staggered to his feet, his jaw now swollen to twice its size, and stayed upright until the bell. Even Frazier admits that Ali "showed big heart." Big heart or not, no one in Gary doubted the outcome. One angry black man stormed by us at the exit, the depth of his affection for Ali no thicker than his wallet. "Muhammad Ali, my ass," he growled. "That's Cassius Clay."
The decision was unanimous. Frazier raised his hands in victory, thanked the Lord, and with a bloody mouth sneered at Ali, "I kicked your ass." Referee Arthur Mercante thought it the most vicious fight he had ever seen. Mark Kram calls it the "most skillful." And by all accounts, it was the most dramatic. "I was 27 years old, and there would never be another night like it in my life," remembers Frazier. He spent the next three weeks in the hospital.
A more just world would have celebrated Frazier as the "Cinderella Man" of his era: the 12th child of a rural Gullah family, who hightailed it out of the South on his own at age 15, developed his superior strength hauling carcasses in a slaughterhouse, and prevailed over a more privileged, more popular, more physically gifted opponent through an iron display of will not seen before or since.
From the beginning, however, careful observers knew that the story wasn't going to play out that way.
Jack Cashill is an Emmy-award winning independent writer and producer with a Ph.D. in American Studies from Purdue. Cashill's recently published book "Sucker Punch" is receiving high praise in the boxing world. Sucker Punch is a stunningly frank look at the man behind the Ali myth. The book can be purchased from numerous internet outlets, such as buy.com