Heavyweight Years 1971 – 1975

Heavyweight Boxing: Golden Years 1971 – 1975

The world of heavyweight boxing knows many heroes, foes, and legendary events. 

A four-year span in the early seventies saw more of them than any other period in the history of the sport. Those were the days of Ali, Frazier, King, Foreman, and fights organized in exotic countries ruled by cruel dictators. 

Before the year 1971, never had two undefeated heavyweight boxers met in a World Championship Title match. 

So, when a title fight between two heavyweight World Champions and Olympic Gold winners with a combined professional record of 57 wins (48 knockouts) and 0 losses was announced in late 1970, it was not an exaggeration to call it The Fight of the Century.

Dave Anderson wrote in his article for The New York Times the day before the fight: 

“Never before have the men, the money, the matchup, the meaning, and the machines combined to produce such an occasion.”

The men were Muhammad Ali, 29, and Joe Frazier, 27. 

The money was big, big money. Both fighters were guaranteed a $2.5 million purse, over $15 million in today’s money, and ringside tickets were a thousand dollars in the box office and as much as $5000 in the black market.

The matchup was the meeting of two boxers who had become world champions and not lost a single fight thereafter. 

Ali became the World Champion in 1963, at 22, when he won the title from Sonny Liston, but in 1970 he hadn’t been a World Champion for three years. 

He didn’t lose the title in the ring, though, but because of politics. He was stripped of the championship and his boxing license in 1967 for refusing to fight in Vietnam. Ali was kept outside the ring from ages 25 to 28. 

Frazier, however, was a reigning World Champion. He won the WBA title against Jimmy Ellis on February 16th, 1970, and successfully defended it twice before the Fight of the Century.

The fourth ‘M’, meaning, refers to the relationship between the two fighters. 

Frazier had been sympathetic towards Ali during his troubles, supporting him financially and in statements he gave to the press. But Ali, a natural PR-machine and cold-as-ice, knew that insults sell, and what sells especially well are the backstabbing kinds, even if you don’t mean them. 

It’s hard to say if he meant what he said when he was on a PR mission. 

So, Ali called Frazier Uncle Tom and too dumb and ugly to be the champ; and, just like Ali wanted, the pre-fight press concentrated on Ali’s statements. 

In his own pre-fight statements, Frazier ignored Ali’s name change and kept referring to him with his birth name Clay. 

Frazier: “He never done nothing for me. I was poor once and he never sent me anything. Now I am helping him. Talk about a true brother. I am for real. Tell him I picked him up when he was down. Preaching don’t mean you are a true man. You got to go out and do.” (From Guardian)

Years later, before Ali vs Frazier III, Ali called Frazier a gorilla. Some things never change.

And finally, the machines: cameras, microphones, satellites, antennas – over 300 million people would witness the fight on close circuit TV network in the US, Canada, the UK, and on live-TV broadcast, or instantly as NYTimes put it, in South America, Europe, Africa and the Far East. This was the beginning of modern sports broadcasting on a global level, and there couldn’t have been a better way to kick it off. 

“The hardest punch I’ve ever taken in my life”

March 8th, 1971, Madison Square Garden, New York

It was hard to know what to expect from the fight. In boxing betting odds in Vegas, Frazier was a 7-to-5 favorite to win, but in London Ali was 11-to-8 favorite to win. 

The dean of American sportswriters, Jerry Izenberg, said: “I’ve been to every kind of championship and seen every great athlete of the past 50 years. And no moment I’ve ever seen had the electricity of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier coming down the aisle and entering the ring the first time they fought. The sound of the crowd changed. It had been a low buzz during the break before the main event. Then it became something different. First, it got louder in the back of the arena. Heads turned. The buzz spread. And it kept getting louder and louder until it was a roar that told everyone that there were two champions in the house.” From Sportingnews.com

Ali said, “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.'”

Frazier said “If you kill the body, the head dies.” 

The boxing journalist Arthur Daley wrote in the NYTimes that he was on Ali’s side, but that he picked Frazier to win by KO in the 9th. Daley agreed with the former heavyweight champion Joe Louis, who thought that the three and a half year break was too long for Ali, or anyone else for that matter, to come back from. Daley also noted that “Never in memory has Ali been attacked by a body-puncher ”.

Frazier said he’d drop Ali in the 10th; Ali said Frazier would get tired in the seventh. 

Smokin’ Joe was 5’11 and a half, and Ali, the Greatest, was three and a half inches taller – 6’3. 

Frazier tried to land his most dangerous weapon, a blistering left hook, for ten rounds, but the butterfly did what butterflies do; he managed to move around and keep his upper body out of Frazier’s reach.

But then, in the 11th, Muhammad Ali received what he would later call “the hardest punch I’ve ever taken in my life”. 

It was the left hook – Joe Frazier’s biggest gun; over 300 million people around the world saw Frazier hit Ali’s body and then deliver a thundering blow to his jaw. 

This time there was no floating away. 

Ali’s knees buckled under the force of the blow, and he went down, but the referee called it a slip. 

Ali got up and walked straight towards Frazier – shaking his head, unapproving rather than in disbelief. But it wasn’t up to him anymore. 

Ali hit the ground again in the 15th; Frazier won The Fight of the Century by a unanimous decision. 

The next day, on March 9th, the NYTimes wrote: “During the classic brawl, one man in the sellout throng of 20,455 died of a heart attack.”

After the fight, Ali was sincere for once: “I’m not going to cry. I made a lot of people unhappy when I beat them, so it’s my time now. I’m not going to cry. A lot of great fighters get whipped. No one can hit as hard as Frazier. I’m satisfied with the fight even though I lost. I know I lost to a great champion, but maybe another time when both of us had been fighting regularly, the result would have been different. I don’t know, but maybe.” (Guardian)

One month later, Frazier became the first African-American man to speak in South Carolina’s state legislature since Reconstruction a century prior. The Times quoted his speech on April 8, 1971: 

“Let’s all pull together,” Frazier said softly. “Let’s make South Carolina a nice place to live, and Philadelphia and New York, so that we can live together, play together and pray together. — We must save our people, and when I say our people, I mean white and black. – We need to quit thinking who’s living next door, who’s driving a big car, who’s my little daughter going to play with, who is she going to sit next to in school. We don’t have time for that.” 

The Times also quoted Frazier’s ten-year-old daughter Jacquelyn, who, after leaving the Legislature, performed a poem at a state luncheon at a nearby restaurant: 

“Fly like a butterfly, 

Sting like a bee,

Joe Frazier is the only one,

Who can beat Muhammad Ali.”

The Sunshine Showdown – “Down Goes Frazier”

January 22nd, 1973, Kingston, Jamaica

While Ali and Frazier were at the beginning of their rivalry, George Foreman, another Olympic Gold medalist, was building an impressive record and quickly becoming the duo’s next challenger. 

Having started his professional career in 1969, by 1971, he had fought and beaten 32 heavyweights – 29 of them with a KO. 

In 1972, Foreman, 23, finally secured a fight against the still-undefeated and undisputed champion, Joe Frazier. 

The date was set on January 22, 1973; the heavyweights would meet in Jamaica in a fight dubbed The Sunshine Showdown. 

Another major name in the history of boxing enters the picture at this point: the legendary promoter Don King. 

King was in Jamaica. In fact, he rode to the stadium in Joe Frazier’s limousine and sat in Frazier’s corner during the fight. 

36.000 spectators at Kingston’s National stadium saw Foreman step in the ring with a 37-0 record, and then the Champion, Frazier, with his 29-0 record; one of them would go down for the first time that night. 

The challenger, Foreman, was a 3-1 underdog. 

Frazier started sharp, but Foreman, who is the same height as Ali, took the command after the first minute. 

Before two minutes had run from the clock, ABC commentator Howard Cosell started to think that Frazier was hurt. When Foreman connected with a right hook that threw Frazier on the floor, Cosell made a call that has become one of the most legendary in the history of sports broadcasting: 

“Down Goes Frazier! Down Goes Frazier! Down Goes Frazier!”

The referee stopped the count when Frazier got up. 

Fifteen seconds before the 1st round was over, Foreman landed a gigantic right hook straight in the middle of Frazier’s face, and Frazier went down for the second time. 

Before the 1st round was over, Frazier ate the floor for the third time.  

In the end, Foreman knocked the champ down six times in under five minutes. He was the new undefeated champ now: 38-0! 

Don King jumped into the ring and approached the new champion. You can actually see King behind Foreman if you search the clips from Youtube. King left the stadium in Foreman’s limousine and became his manager.

Two months later, Ken Norton broke Muhammad Ali’s jaw in a split decision win at the Sports Arena, San Diego, California.

Ali quickly scheduled a rematch against Norton for September 1973 and reclaimed the NABF title in a 12-round split decision win at Inglewood Forum. He then flew to Jakarta, Indonesia, and fought Rudi Lubbers only a month and ten days later, on October 20th. Ali easily battered the Dutch tomato can.

Frazier spent six months recovering after Jamaica and chose Joe Bugner as his next opponent in a fight scheduled for July 2, 1973. Bugner had lost to Ali in February of 1973, but he’d lasted all 12 rounds. Frazier won that Monday night fight on points. 

Don King’s First Fights

The world of heavyweight boxing had never been in this situation before: Foreman was the undefeated champion, and the challengers were the two previous undefeated champions, the gladiators from the Fight of the Century, Ali and Frazier. 

There could not have been a better time for somebody like Don King to take hold of the center stage. 

He was born in 1931 in Cleveland, Ohio. A natural-born hustler, conman, and a cheat, King started to get noticed by the police in his twenties and went on to get arrested 30 odd times for gambling and violent offenses between 1951 and 1966. 

He was involved in some really heavy stuff. 

In 1954, King shot a man to death in a shootout; the case was ruled self-defense. By the early 1960s, he owned a nightclub and had risen to the top of the Cleveland numbers game, grossing over $10.000 per day. 

King was still sporting a typical afro that he later styled to its better known and more exuberant form. He did that on recommendation from his friend the singer Lloyd Price who also knew Muhammad Ali and introduced him to King.

Then, in 1966, King pistol-whipped and kicked a man to death on the street in Cleveland. The man, Sam Garret, was 100 lbs lighter than King and owed him $600. Police officers witnessed the attack, and King was convicted of second degree murder. The conviction was later changed to manslaughter and King was given a four-year prison sentence. 

He was about to turn 40 when released from prison in 1971, ready to become a boxing promoter. He needed a plan and a little help from a friend. 

That friend was Muhammad Ali. King got him to fight four men in a 10-round exhibition bout which raised $20.000 for a children’s hospital and transformed King from a convict to a boxing promoter and philanthropist in the process.

The Real Ali vs Frazier II

January 23, 1974, ABC Studios, New York

Both Ali and Frazier were ready for the second meeting in 1974.

Super Fight II was scheduled for January 28th at Madison Square Garden, but the real Ali vs. Frazier II was fought already five days earlier at the ABC Studios in New York. 

ABC’s Wide World of Sports booked the heavyweights to sit together and re-watch The Fight of the Century together on January 23rd; they would broadcast the reshowing two days before their second fight. 

The show opens with a short introduction film of both fighters. Frazier is seen at a church, singing hymns; Ali is in a practice ring, smack-talking before the Fight of the Century, saying if he lost, he’d get down on his hands and knees in the ring at Madison Square Garden, and crawl to Joe Frazier’s corner, and say “You are the greatest!”.

The introduction ends, and we go to the studio. Ali is wearing a grey suit, a white shirt with 70s collars and a wide, white tiger-striped tie; Frazier, a cream leisure suit with bell bottoms, and a zipped top. 

Frazier is leaning back, his hands in a ten-finger-power pose in front of him. Ali is sulking while Jim McKay, the legendary host of Wide World of Sports from 1961 to 1998, is talking and seems to be waiting for him to stop rather than to be really listening to what he’s saying.

“Well that was almost three years ago Muhammad, and you lost, and you never did crawl across that ring.” McKay said. 

Ali’s is hunched over a little, looking like a child who is getting scolded. 

As soon as Mckay finishes, Ali starts: “White people say I lost. And that’s some white people. All black people know that I won. — Because of my religion, because of my draft policy, you say I lost. But I know I beat Joe Frazier, physically, and in more rounds I won; you can’t make me and boxing people believe I lost. This is a racist expression. — Whoever is a bigot, thought I lost. I won the fight.”

“We are gonna let the public see the fight at home,” said McKay.

“Now you’re talking.”

The footage of Ali vs Frazier I starts, and nine rounds go by in the studio with little more than light chit-chat. 

Unlike the first time, the action starts to heat up during the 10th; Ali is complaining (in the studio, not in the ring) that Frazier hit him below the belt and that the ref wasn’t doing anything. 

“That’s why you went to the hospital,” said Frazier, with something like a high schooler’s smirk on his face.  

Ali doesn’t like that. “Please, Joe, don’t talk about no hospital. I went to the hospital for 10 minutes; you go for a month. Now be quiet…Inaudible…Why you gotta bring that up…Man, there’s something ignorant about the (way the) man is…”

Joe Frazier doesn’t like Ali using the word ignorant. “Why you think I’m ignorant?” 

At this point Frazier takes off his earpiece and gets up. 

He asks again “Why you think I’m ignorant?”

“Now, you know, sit down.” Ali’s having to look up when he’s saying this. 

Frazier doesn’t sit down. 

“Sit down Joe.” 

Frazier doesn’t sit down. 

“Sit down quick Joe.” 

Frazier doesn’t sit down. 

Ali gets up, puts his arm behind Frazier’s neck, pulls down and says again “Sit down quick Joe.” 

They both go down, wrestling. People are blocking the camera’s view, so you can only hear the action. 

McKay thinks that it’s serious, that “they are not clowning at all.” 

He concludes that Ali is clowning, but I’m not so sure, and that Frazier is serious – I agree with him on that. 

Frazier leaves the studio – McKay, who sounds shaken, says Frazier is distraught because Ali called him ignorant. 

“I’m sorry Joe”, McKay calls after him. The broadcast cuts to commercials. 

After commercials, there’s an empty chair in the studio, but just one. Ali is now sitting in the chair where Frazier was sitting before. McKay says that there’s no denying Frazier left the studio with real anger.

Ali speaks like the only man left in the studio. “I’d say there was anger in Joe’s part. I wasn’t angry. I’m still not angry. That’s why I’m still here.”

“Alright”, McKay tries to interrupt Ali.

“…but man shouldn’t be that savage and illiterate to just jump up and ball his fists on me. I didn’t know what he was going to do, so I had to defend myself.” 

Ali also can’t let go that Frazier mentioned the hospital. He thinks it’s ignorant for Frazier to bring it up, because Frazier spent a much longer time recovering in a hospital than he did after their first fight.  

McKay says that he won’t be the devil’s advocate, standing in for Frazier, but Ali’s behaviour makes it hard for him not to. Ali says that you’d need to be a devil to stand in for him. This is enough for McKay – you can hear in his voice that he’s had it with Ali. 

It’s just the two of them in the studio, watching Frazier land that left hook in Ali’s jaw in the 11th.

Super Fight II

January 28, 1974, Ali vs Frazier II, Madison Square Garden, New York

There’s a clear marching order in boxing when it comes to entering the stage: the challenger takes the ring first and waits for the champion to join him. 

“Muhammad Ali coming in first,” said McKay, who presented the Wide World of Sports broadcast of Ali vs Frazier II. “We understand that there was a mild dispute as to which fighter would come in first. Finally, it was decided that Ali would come in first.”

Music hadn’t been added to the ring walk yet by the time of Ali vs Frazier II – you could still hear the noise of the crowd change when they saw their first glimpse of the fighters. 

“At the age of 32, how much is left of Muhammad Ali remains to be seen here and now tonight.”

“And now coming into the ring, to the accompaniment of a surprising number of boos because he is a very decent and open man and was certainly a superb fighter when he held the championship – is Joe Frazier.”  

Three rounds go by with nothing major to report. Then, O.J Simpson, yes, that O.J Simpson, pops on the screen and reads some college basketball scores and tells the audience that one of the refs scored the first rounds 3 – 0 for Ali and two of them 2 – 1 to Ali, Frazier being better in the third in their eyes.

Someone from the crowd, possibly Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer, keeps shouting to Ali: “Step on a dime, keep dancing.”

McKay thinks that Ali is in much better shape than he was in the first match. He also looks better than in the fights against Norton and Lubbers. Ali doesn’t even sit down in his corner after the fourth. 

“Float like a butterfly”, shouts the same guy from the crowd. 

O.J makes a come-back after the seventh and delivers the scores again with a smug expression on his face. The seventh is the first round that Frazier wins from all three judges.

Judge 1: Ali 4-2-1

Judge 2: Ali 5-2

Referee: Ali 4-2-1

Frazier’s momentum carries over to the 8th and Ali is starting to slow down. The crowd is roaring every time Frazier lands a punch. The fight is scheduled to be 12 rounds so, including this one, Frazier has five rounds to turn the result around. He needs to win three more than Ali to tie (which is possible under the New York boxing rules). It looks like Frazier got the better of it in the 8th.

Frazier dances around and torments Ali during the break between the 8th and 9th rounds, eager to get back to fighting; Ali’s movement is starting to be a little labored.  

Frazier comes out the gates swinging for Ali in the 9th. He feels that he is in full command of the fight, but somehow Ali turns the momentum around. The crowd starts to chant “Ali, Ali, Ali!” 

O.J comes back to report the score after 9 rounds: 6-3 for Ali from Judge 1, and 5-3-1 from the two others. Without a KO, Frazier will need to win the rest of the rounds to have a chance of winning. 

The man from the crowd who McKay thinks is Angelo Dundee shouts at Ali to “stay there, stay there” when Ali is in the middle of the ring during the 10th. Ali knows that he’ll win unless he gets knocked out.

“Stay there baby, stay there.”

O.J makes his last appearance after the 11th. Scores are:

Judge 1: Ali 6-4-1

Judge 2: Ali 8-3

Referee: Ali 6-4-1

Smokin’ Joe Frazier tries to land the blow to take Ali down in the 12th, but Ali is too strong. Frazier gets in some good punches, but it’s not enough. 

Ali wins the match by a unanimous decision. The final scores are: 

Judge 1: Ali 7-4-1

Judge 2: Ali 8-4

Referee: Ali 6-5-1

One Youtube commenter wrote: “It to me was Ali’s best fight: floated like a butterfly, stung like a bee. Joe missed cause he couldn’t see.” 

I didn’t see the stinging, but Ali sure floated gracefully around the ring. 

McKay, standing in the ring, asks Angelo Dundee: “What next? You really want Foreman? 

“Oh sure he wants Foreman. Anytime Foreman wants him. He’s not looking for Foreman; Foreman’s gotta be looking for him. He’s the man!”

Then it’s time to talk to Ali, who exhibits rare sincerity: “It’s harder than it used to be.”

“Would you have to say Joe is a good fighter?”

“Joe’s tough. He’s better than I thought he would be.”

“It was hard. I have to say Joe Frazier is better than I thought he was.” 

Caracas Caper

March 26, 1974, Foreman vs Norton, El Poliedro, Caracas, Venezuela

The World Heavyweight title fight between George Foreman and Ken Norton was not billed with an exotic name before the fight, but it came to be known as the Caracas Caper later on. 

Why Caper? Don King is your answer. He had realized that taking fights outside Madison Square Garden could guarantee the fighters bigger purses, at least in theory, as foreign government representatives could be more agreeable to backroom dealing. 

The story goes that the Venezuelan government promised to waive the taxes, but then, the day after the fight, reversed the decision and started to ask for 18% from both fighters’ purses. 

So, King promised Foreman and Norton that they could get their money tax-free from Venezuela, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. Both fighters were almost arrested, and Foreman’s team ended up negotiating for five days before they were allowed to leave the country by the government. 

These illicit and dubious activities lead to the fight being called the Caracas Caper. And the alliteration didn’t hurt either. 

In the ring, the first round of the fight is pretty even with both fighters landing some heavy punches. Muhammad Ali is sitting ringside, commentating for the broadcast. Ali thinks Norton is a great fighter, if only by proxy: “Any fighter who stands up for 24 rounds with me is a great fighter.” 

“Ain’t no George Foreman, who is still a good amateur, gonna destroy Ken Norton, because I couldn’t do it.”

Hold my beer, thinks George Foreman, and proceeds to destroy Norton with a couple of vicious right uppercuts and a final left to score a second round knockout.  

In a ringside interview after the fight, Ali admits that Foreman is hard, but that he is not scared: 

Ali: “If a man can stay out of his (Foreman’s) way for five rounds, stick him, move, stay in good shape, he’ll retire Foreman. I’m gonna whoop him, of all places, in Africa, in Congo.”

Interviewer: “Well Fighting in your home territory, you couldn’t be more happy with the way this is coming..”

Ali: “Why would you call Africa my home turf?”

Interviewer: “You’ve been telling me that for 10 years!”

Ali: “That’s right, and if you come over talking like it, we’ll cook you.” 

King had probably already guessed the result before the fight – or why else would he have signed a deal with the government of Zaire for Foreman to meet Muhammad Ali in Kinshasa in the summer of 1974?

Rumble in the Jungle

October 30, 1974, Foreman vs Ali, Stade de 20 Mai, Kinshasa, Zaire (Congo).

Rumble in the jungle is potentially Don King’s greatest feat. He managed to get both Ali and Foreman to sign separate contracts securing a minimum purse of five million dollars each. King didn’t have the money, and nobody in the US would grant him that much. 

Don King talked about the machinations behind the scenes in the 40th anniversary of Rumble in the Jungle on MeTV. 

King revealed that Zaire’s dictator Mobutu Sese Seko had an American advisor named Fred Wyman, who managed to persuade the leader of the benefits of staging a fight of such scale. The money for the fight eventually came from Libya’s dictator Muammad Gaddafi. But that’s according to King, who also said that the original money man was supposed to be from King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, but that he sadly died and couldn’t put up the money. 

A quick peek at Wikipedia tells us that King Faisal died in 1975, so it’s hard to know if he was ever really involved with Rumble in the Jungle or if something else came up, but his death in 1975 certainly didn’t stop him from financing a fight in October 1974. King could have gotten his events mixed up and maybe Faisal was supposed to finance Thrilla in Manilla, but I think it’s likely King was just doing his thing – lying to the interviewer. 

King also said that the chairman of Ladbrokes was supposed to back him financially on the condition that King signs Ali and Foreman, but when it actually happened, the Ladbrokes guy backed out saying that he never believed King would succeed.  

Like Ali already said in Venezuela after the Caracas Caper, he thought that he could beat Foreman in Africa. In a pre-fight interview, Ali was his own rhyming-self: 

“Listen David, when I meet this man, if you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait until I whip Foreman’s behind.” The audience laughs and Ali continues:

“I’ve wrestled with an alligator, I’ve tussled with a whale, I’ve handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail.” 

“Now you know I’m bad, only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean I make medicine sick.” Fugees used that in the intro of Rumble in the Jungle, their 1996 collab with the Tribe Called Quest.

Many others did not think Foreman would lose and Ali was 4-1 underdog before the fight. 

Foreman’s record coming into the fight was 40 fights, 40 wins, 37 knockouts; by the time of Rumble in the Jungle, it had been four years and 24 fights since the last time his opponent made it through all scheduled rounds. 

Colin Hart was the only British boxing journalist who picked Ali to win – the rest went for Foreman. Many of them thought Ali would end up in a hospital. 

NFL-legend turned sports broadcaster Jim Brown witnessed both men practice before the fight and saw how terrifying Foreman was. He went to Ali and told him that ‘Hey, you’re my friend and I love you but I don’t think you can beat that guy.’

Ali’s team stressed before the fight how important it would be for him to refuse to be bullied early on by getting the first punch in. 

The fight started at 10:00 PM Eastern time, which is 4:00 AM Kinshasa time.

If you watch footage from the fight, you’ll see that Ali practically runs to Foreman after the bell and is already in the middle of the ring when Foreman turns around from his corner. Ali lands a hard punch and stays away from Foreman for the rest of the round. After the bell Ali went over to Jim Brown and asked: ‘Hey big fella, what do you think now?!’

In round three Foreman lands a huge blow on the side of Ali’s head, but Ali isn’t shaken: “That all you got, George?” Foreman knew then and there that he was in trouble. 

After the fourth, Foreman’s lights started to dim: “It was like I’d stepped into a bucket of concrete. I was all spent, I didn’t know what I was doing out there.”

Colin Hart saw Foreman start to run out of fuel in the fifth. The big man was still punching, but the blows didn’t hurt anymore.

The writer Norman Mailer was there, sitting ringside with George Plimpton, who covered the fight for Sports Illustrated. They had the best seats to witness the unexpected: an AP photographer captured Mailer and Plimpton with their mouths agape in the sixth, watching Foreman fall to the floor forehead first. 

Hunter S. Thompson had been sent to Congo to cover the fight for the Rolling Stone Magazine. He admired Ali, but didn’t seem to think that Foreman could be beaten. 

Plimpton wrote later that he asked Hunter’s opinion on the fight a day after it, and Thompson replied:

“What fight? Oh, I didn’t go to the fight. I stayed in the hotel swimming pool. I lay on my back looking at the moon coming up, and the only person in the hotel came and stared at me a long time before he went away. Maybe he thought I was a corpse. I floated there naked. I’d thrown a pound and a half of marijuana into the pool—it was what I had left and I am not trying to smuggle it out of this country—and it stuck together there in a sort of clot, and then it began to spread out in a green slick. It was very luxurious floating naked in that stuff, though it’s not the best way to obtain a high.”

Thrilla in Manilla

October 1, 1975, Ali vs Frazier III, Araneta Coliseum, Cubao, Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines

When The Ring ranked 100 greatest title fights of all time in 1996, Ali vs Frazier I (aka The Fight of the Century) was ranked the 4th best title bout of all time. Jack Dempsey’s second round knockout of Luis Firpo in 1923 came third and the second best title fight of all time was Rocky Graziano’s 6th round knockout of Tony Zale in 1947.

The greatest title fight of all time was Ali vs Frazier III, also known as Thrilla in Manila. 

Two Ali vs. Frazier fights in the top-4 make it pretty easy to conclude that Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier were the greatest rivals in boxing history. 

Thrilla in Manila would be the last time they met inside the ring. 

In the pre-fight press conference, Don King was sitting between Ali and Frazier. Ali is rhyming again: “It’ll be a killer, and a chiller, and a thriller, when I get the gorilla in Manila!” 

Frazier is laughing, saying that he’s heard all of it before. 

Later, Ali explained his rhetoric: “I’m a deep thinker, but I don’t think deep in various press conferences promoting fights. You have to think small to reach the average people. So I gave the people what they wanted: “This is no jive, he shall fall in five.” They buy tickets and line up for miles.”  

And line up, they did. Ali’s flight from Australia to the Philippines had been delayed on purpose so that his entrance to Manila could be shown on primetime tv, with people crowding the streets like it was a royal wedding. 

After winning the Rumble in the Jungle, Ali was the champion, so Frazier had to climb into the ring first. 

Frazier’s trainer was Eddie Futch. Ali lost to five men in his career – Futch coached four of them.  

Frazier asked Futch to not stop the fight whatever happened. 

“’Eddie, listen up! Whatever you do, whatever happens, don’t stop the fight! We got nowhere to go after this. I’m gonna eat this half-breed’s heart right out of his chest.”

Ken Norton was the co-commentator in the studio. He thought that Ali would have the edge early on, and that he could even try to KO Frazier in the first, but if the fight went to eight or more rounds, Frazier would start to edge towards the win. 

Norton correctly predicted that this fight would possibly be the greatest title fight ever. 

He also commented on the huge trophy that was standing in the middle of the ring (“donated by his excellency President Ferdinand E. Marcos”): “I’d like to take that trophy home.” Before the fighters were introduced, Ali walked into the middle of the ring and grabbed the trophy, taking it back to his corner. The audience at the stands were loving it! Frazier paid no attention.

Ali kept shouting threats to Frazier. Frazier said simply: “I’m gonna kill you Clay.”

Frazier started the fight with a smile on his face. Ali started strong, as usual, giving Frazier all he got from the first sound of the bell. But the slow-starting Frazier kept smiling. 

The first round of Thrilla in Manila is one of my favorites from the three Ali vs Frazier fights. 

Ali was throwing huge punches left and right, and managed to land a devastating blow that buckled Frazier’s feet momentarily – you can see Frazier’s neck touch the ropes. But Frazier wouldn’t go down that easy. He quickly regained his composure and matched Ali’s rhythm for the rest of the round – Ali didn’t get his early KO, but he did win the first round.

In the following rounds Ali was trying to stay away from Frazier, who kept trying to close the gap and exploiting Ali’s exposed sides and stomach. Ali was landing giant punches, but Frazier kept absorbing them with his face, seemingly unaffected. You can see in the TV footage that Ali was talking through-out the fight. According to the ref, he was reciting dirty poems to Frazier. 

The third round was absolutely epic. First Ali spent a full minute on the ropes being pummeled to his arms, stomach, sides and face. But Ali took it. Then he switched gears and threw six punches in just over a second, missing most of them, but showing that he still had it. Another five punches in rapid succession swung the momentum to Ali. 

Ali was leading the fight at this point, but Frazier was starting to get warmed up. The next three rounds were cruel punching battles, where Ali started strong, but tired towards the ends of the rounds. 

After the eighth round Ali thought that he was dying, that he was totally at the end of his rope, having trouble staying awake. His corner doctor didn’t understand how Ali could keep going. 

By the end of the tenth the fight was even. Both men were totally gassed, powering through with sheer determination; Frazier could barely see at this point; Ali could barely stand. Ali later said that he was thinking why am I doing this? Frazier’s trainer was thinking of ending the fight. 

Neither one had ever been this tired. After the 13th Ali didn’t think that he could keep going – after the 14th Ali didn’t have to.

Eddie Futch had seen men die in the ring and he wouldn’t allow that to happen to Joe. Futch signalled to the ref to end the fight.

“No, no, no!” Joe shouted. “You can’t do that to me!”

But it was all over.

“Sit down , son,” Futch said. “It’s over. No one will forget what you did here today.” 

Frazier surely couldn’t – a rift broke between the men and Joe would later say that Futch stole the Manila fight from him. 

Thrilla in Manila was the only Ali vs Frazier fight that didn’t go the distance.