50 years ago today, Ali and Frazier stepped into the ring and delivered a divided nation its greatest sporting spectacle

Illustration: (AP)
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Professional boxing had come a long way in the half-century that preceded March 8, 1971, the night Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali stepped into the Madison Square Garden ring for what remains history’s greatest heavyweight championship fight.

Fifty years earlier, in a previously-billed “Fight of the Century,’’ Jack Dempsey had met Georges Carpentier in a makeshift wooden arena constructed to hold 120,000 fans at a place called Boyle’s Thirty Acres across the Hudson River from Manhattan. The only way to see the fight was to be there, and if you were anywhere in the outer reaches of the vast amphitheater, you needed binoculars or a telescope to see the minuscule figures in the distant ring.

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Ali-Frazier I would be seen live by a comparatively-puny crowd of 20,000 but witnessed by an additional 300 million more around the world via what was then the revolutionary concept of closed-circuit television. It was the dawn of an era that would eventually lead to the privilege of bringing an abomination like the 2017 “fight’’ between Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor “fight’’ or last November’s sparring match between a couple of 50-year-olds, Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr., into the comfort of your living room at prices ranging up to $100 a pop.

But in other ways, little has changed in the five decades that have passed since Ali-Frazier I, or even the century that has elapsed since the Dempsey-Carpentier fight.

In 1971, Ali polarized the nation by refusing to take the ceremonial step forward to be drafted to serve in the Vietnam War, a decision that cost him his title and four years of his athletic prime and countless millions of dollars. Dempsey was in the same situation in 1921, an immensely unpopular champion for having failed to serve in World War I due to his status as a married man; he had wed Maxine Cates, a prostitute 15 years his senior, five years earlier.

But there was of course another element to the hatred directed at Ali 50 years ago. He was the Black man that terrified white America, the one who was tough enough to kick your ass and handsome enough to steal your wife. And he wasn’t shy about reminding you of either.

Fast forward to 2016, where a Black man of a different sport and a far different personality — after all, has there ever been another athlete even remotely like Ali? — has enraged and polarized white America by simply taking a knee on a football field.

In truth, aside from their effect on the populace, there is little in common between Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick. While Kaepernick’s stance has been admirable and costly, it does not begin to compare to what Ali willingly gave up in 1967. And it is hard to imagine that if Kaepernick were allowed to return to the NFL it would be met with the same kind of shockwaves that Ali’s return to the ring caused in 1970.

There are no athletes like Ali anymore, and likely never will be. There is simply no percentage in alienating half the country, antagonizing sponsors and, in the vernacular of our times, tarnishing a brand the way Ali was willing to in allegiance to his personal convictions and religious beliefs.

Even Kaepernick, as righteous as his cause is and as onerous as his punishment, eventually received a financial safety net in the form of a Nike deal that cushioned his fall onto a bed of millions per year. Ali had roach powder, shoe polish and shaving cream. (As far as I can recall, Frazier never had an endorsement deal of any kind... well there was Miller Lite.)

When Ali climbed into the ring that night, he was facing more than just the destructive whirlwind that was Smokin’ Joe Frazier. While probably half the Garden crowd viewed Ali as a martyred hero, the other half wanted to see him carried out on a stretcher. It was hardly an unusual situation for Ali; the loudmouthed persona he had created for himself after returning from the 1960 Rome Olympics with a gold medal was specifically designed to attract crowds that would pay good money for the chance you might see him beaten to a pulp.

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Ali’s left jab peppered Frazier for much of the bout.
Image: AP

So it was that on March 8, 1971, the factions rooting for each fighter were divided along tribal lines. Ali was the choice of the counterculture, the hell-no-we-won’t-go crowd, the “liberals,’’ the hippies, and just about all of Black America. Frazier, who had lived the life of a sharecropper as a boy in Beaufort, S.C. — he actually spoke Gullah, the creole dialect adopted by Black southern farmworkers to preserve some remnants of their African. culture, and also to be able to speak without being understood by slavemasters — before moving as a teenager to inner-city Philadelphia, was unfairly and unwillingly thrust into the role of Great White Hope.

It was a role that would scar him for the rest of his life and destroy whatever post-career relationship he and Ali might have had. In that racially-charged era there could be no worse epithet slung at a Black man than to be called an Uncle Tom. Under the guise of “fight hype,’’ Ali hung that around Frazier’s neck. It cut like a knife in 1971, and the last time I interviewed Frazier, at his apartment in Philadelphia about a year before his death in 2011, the wound was still raw.

“Sometimes, when things ain’t going right for me, I watch that fight and I feel better,’’ he told me.

Frazier, then 66 years old, wasn’t feeling very well at the time, having just undergone back surgery for the sixth time to treat a split spine suffered in an auto accident eight years before.

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Both fighters battled to exhaustion in the 15-round fight.
Image: AP

On the wall behind where he sat hung a huge picture of the perhaps the most famous left hook in boxing history, delivered in the opening seconds of the 15th round and captured at the moment of impact on Ali’s jaw. Ali is glassy-eyed and his legs are in that curious half-standing, half-sitting posture that always means the next stop is the floor.

“There’s the Butterfly, on his way down,’’ Frazier had said. “There was my moment. Where would I be without that?’’

And yet, Frazier had never truly been able to savor his triumph. Practically from the moment the decision was announced, Ali screamed that he had been robbed. He renounced his promise to “crawl across the ring’’ and kiss Frazier’s feet if he lost. And while Ali spent a few hours in a New York emergency room having X-rays taken of a grotesquely swollen jaw, it was Frazier who wound up in a hospital for nearly a month, suffering from exhaustion, dehydration and a kidney ailment that left him close to death.

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Ali’s left cheek swelled after taking that legendary hook from Frazier.
Image: AP

Later, it would also be revealed that throughout his career, Joe Frazier had been an insulin-dependent diabetic, which sharply curtailed his ability to train, and had fought many of his fights blind in his left eye, which may explain why he was always so vulnerable to Ali’s wicked right hand.

And while there is no doubt neither man was ever the same after that first meeting, Ali was able to regain the title two more times, once in dramatic fashion with his KO of George Foreman in Zaire and once in nostalgic fashion, by outboxing a young and green Leon Spinks, a fighter he’d lost his belt to exactly seven months earlier.

Frazier, meanwhile, fought just nine more times over the next 10 years, and lost four of them. The fact that the only men ever to have beaten him were named Ali and Foreman is further testament to his greatness.

And the truth is that probably no heavyweight in history would have beaten Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971. The fire he was willing to march through for 14-plus rounds before landing the punch that put the exclamation point on his victory had never been matched in any previous heavyweight title fight, nor has it been in the ensuing 50 years. I doubt it ever will.

Viewed strictly by pugilistic standards, Ali-Frazier I was the gold standard of heavyweight title fights. I don’t need CompuBox to tell me there were an enormous amount of punches thrown and landed over the course of those 15 rounds, and I don’t need to have felt the sting of Ali’s jab or the thud of Frazier’s hook to understand what the effect was. The faces of the two fighters at the final bell said it all.

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When it was all over, it was Frazier, hand held high, that would take the decision.
Image: AP

And no matter how many times I watch the fight, and I’ve seen it literally hundreds of times, I still get chills at the sight of Ali, in his red velvet robe, making his way to the ring through a crowd that made Madison Square Garden seem like a small and dangerously noisy room. Even though I know what he is walking into and where it will all end up, I’m still riveted by the journey.

Ali-Frazier is undoubtedly one of the three most important fights in boxing history, the other two being the Jack Johnson-James J. Jefferies fight of 1910 — the first of the “Great White Hope’’ attempts to rescue the title from the hands of what was considered to be a menacing Black man — and the 1938 rematch between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium, which was only a preamble for the looming war between the U.S. and Nazi Germany.

And it may be the best remembered sporting event of the 20th century, more memorable than any Super Bowl, World Series or Kentucky Derby.

People who were my age on March 8, 1971 were old enough to have remembered Dempsey-Carpentier, and no doubt marveled at how far boxing and the world had come. But fifty years after Ali-Frazier I, the truth is that both have taken giant steps backwards.