By Geoff Stanton
It was March 1971 and Madison Square Garden teemed with celebrities, punters, police and paparazzi. The venue was thick with carnival. At its core, a fission of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier preparing to clash. Celebrated artists waiting to paint the event. Burt Lancaster sat in the commentators chair for the closed-circuit broadcast. Frank Sinatra jostling ringside, taking photos for LIFE Magazine. Norman Mailer took the words, with an article aptly titled EGO.
“It is the great word of the twentieth century. If there is a single word our century has added to the potentiality of language, it is ego. Everything we have done in this century, from monumental feats to nightmares of human destruction, have been a function of that extraordinary state of the psyche that gives us authority to declare we are sure of ourselves when we are not” (Norman Mailer)
It was more than a meeting of two heavyweights – it was a culture clash. The signature showdown between “draft-dodging” Ali and the Establishment’s hippy-humbling hero, Smokin’ Joe Frazier. The freaks had a hero in Ali, but Frazier was a rolling mass of brute punishment waiting to unfurl.
Ali: “You don’t understand, Frazier will be easier than Quarry or Bonavena. I’ll just hold his head and I’ll tell him, ‘Come on, Champ.’ I’ll just play with him. He’ll be trying all those short hooks and not reaching me and I’ll be moving and saying, ‘Come on, champ. You can do better than that.’”
“The two places Frazier communicates best,” wrote LIFE’s Thomas Thompson in a March 1971 cover story, “are in the ring, when a cloak of menace and fury drops over him, and on a nightclub stage, where he sings with strength and sincerity.”
“Heavyweights are always the most lunatic of prizefighters. The closer a heavyweight comes to the championship, the more natural it is for him to be a little bit insane, secretly insane, for the heavyweight champion of the world is either the toughest man in the world or he is not, but there is a real possibility he is. It is like being the big toe of God. You have nothing to measure yourself by.” (Mailer)
“Sooner or later fight metaphors, like fight managers, go sentimental. But there is no choice here. Frazier was the human equivalent of a war machine. He had tremendous firepower. He had a great left hook, a left hook frightening even to watch when it missed, for it seemed to whistle.” (Mailer)
“It was electric in the Garden that night,” Shearer told LIFE.com. “You know, it was the night of the great showdown between the era’s two gladiators, and there was a sense that the unprecedented hype for the fight might actually fall short of the reality.”
Many of the greats have shown us that it takes the power of the event, and the fulcrum it generates, to bind the spirit, guide us through turmoil; create sense, certainty, politics, art. Life is uncertain, sure. But nature abhors a vacuum. Or, as Mailer put it: “Within 45 seconds the pattern had begun”.
“I have this visceral belief that he just can’t be beaten,” LIFE’s sports editor, Steve Gelman, said of Ali before the fight. “He’s one of those guys, like [Bob] Cousy in basketball, or Willie Mays in baseball. In their prime they were able to come up with exactly the right physical improvisation necessary to do the job. Ali has more of this quality than any athlete I’ve ever seen. No matter how good Frazier is, Ali will manage to win.”
The fight more than matched the juggernaut of hype. It ran the full 15 round championship distance. Ali weaved his way through the first three rounds, catching Frazier with a series of jabs and hooks as he ducked and dodged.
But Frazier slowly began to dominate.
Catching Ali with a barrage left hooks Frazier squared the champ up against the ropes, delivering a sermon of body blows.
Ali was visibly wilting after the sixth, putting together a flurry of punches, but unable to keep step with the pace he had set himself at the start. But agility and eloquence kept him on an even footing with Frazier. The fight was close until late in round 11.
During the 11th round Frazier caught Ali, backing him into a corner with a bruising left hook, tacking him onto the ropes. Ali survived, but the War Machine claimed the next three.
“Frazier moved in with the snarl of a wolf,” Norman Mailer wrote of the middle rounds. “His teeth seemed to show through his mouthpiece … Ali looked tired and a little depressed … At the beginning of the fifth round, he got up slowly from his stool, very slowly. Frazier was beginning to feel that the fight was his. He moved in on Ali, his hands at his side in mimicry of Ali, a street fighter mocking his opponent, and Ali tapped him with long light jabs to which Frazier stuck out his mouthpiece, a jeer of derision as if to suggest that the mouthpiece was all Ali would reach all night.”
At the end of 14 Frazier held a lead on the three scorecards. Early in round 15 Frazier landed a tremendous left hook that put Ali on his back.
It was Ali’s first professional loss. He would not win another world title fight until three and a half years later, on October 30, 1974.
Donald McRae wrote for The Guardian: “There was, of course, a price to pay – for both of them – and the Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City, Manila, on the morning of Wednesday 1 October 1975, was the settling place. The Thrilla in Manila – conceived by Don King, embraced by the dubious regime of President Marcos – reached and maintained such a level of raw intensity that it is regarded by an overwhelming majority of respected observers as the most brutal of all heavyweight title fights. It is no exaggeration to say that either or both combatants could have died.”
After the Great Fight both Frazier and Ali spent time in hospital. Rumors circulated that Frazier had died. Ali vowed to retire from boxing if they turned out to be true.
Mailer went on to write ‘The Fight’, about Ali’s confrontation with George Foreman during the 1975 World Heavyweight Boxing Championship in Kinshasa, Zaire. In contrast to the wrecking ball of Frazier, Foreman’s deadly character has been described as a potent of “silence, serenity and cunning”. Foreman had also never been defeated. His hands were his instrument, and “he kept them in his pockets the way a hunter lays his rifle back into its velvet case”. In Mailer’s own hands, it was another monumental clash of Egos.
Sinatra pursued his singing career.
Towards the end of his life, Frazier claimed he was badly out of pocket – lost many millions lost on land deals and a swindle of business partners. He walked with a cane, but continued to tour with The Knockouts. Of Ali, Frazier commented in 2011 “If I had a loaf of bread, I’d give it to him”.
On hearing of Frazier’s death shortly afterward, the Ego of the battle was perhaps finally laid to rest. Ali said: “The world has lost a great Champion. I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration. My sympathy goes out to his family and loved ones.”