I was having lunch with my good buddy Larry earlier this week, solving the problems of the world as we usually do, when the talk turned to the subject of boxing, heavyweight boxing specifically.
We both grew up in what we consider the “hey-day” boxing’s top weight class. That would be the 1960’s & 1970’s.
That “golden era” started with Floyd Patterson & Sonny Liston, and ended with Larry Holmes. But oh my, in between there were truly some great fighters, who put on some tremendous bouts.
Muhammad Ali (aka Cassius Clay), Joe Frazier, George Foreman, George Chuvalo, Jerry Quarry, Jimmy Ellis, Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, and Leon Spinks, just to name some.
These guys fought each other, didn’t back down, and fought frequently. Nothing like today where guys wait YEARS before getting into the ring to take on a top opponent.
In my opinion, the greatest boxing rivalry ever, maybe the greatest sports rivalry ever, were the 3 fights between Ali & Frazier that took place between March 1971, and September of 1975.
The first fight, staged in Madison Square Garden, was probably the biggest, most hyped sporting event in the 20th century. Both fighters were guaranteed 2.5 million dollars, an unheard of amount at that time. Anybody & everybody from the sports & entertainment industries were in attendance. Frank Sinatra was a ringside photographer for gosh sakes!
“Smokin Joe” knocked Ali down in the 15th round, and won the decision. The fight did not disappoint as far as action & and punches thrown that landed.
They met for the second time in January of 1974. I was living in Daytona Beach, Florida at the time, going to school. I skipped out of a Monday night class, and drove 80 miles to Orlando to watch the fight on closed circuit TV. This fight was the least remembered of the three. Not as much hype as the first, but a good fight none the less. Ali controlled the fight, and won the decision.
Their third and final fight, took place just over 37 years ago in Manila, as my good friend Gary pointed out in a Facebook posting recently. Ali had regained the championship in a stunning upset of George Foreman about a year before this fight, and Frazier was hoping to regain the crown that he had lost to Foreman a few years prior.
The fight was simply a war from the opening bell. Both fighters would just pound and pound on the other, but neither would back down. Ali controlled the first five rounds or so, but then Frazier took over. Joe turned the fight around between rounds 6 and 10. Ali is actually quoted as saying he wanted to quit in around the 11th round.
But then, like the great champion that he was, Ali regained the momentum. By the end of the 14th round, Joe’s eyes were a swollen mass. The fight was stopped, and Ali kept the title. Ironically, despite the punishment that was inflicted, neither fighter was knocked down.
Looking back, this fight was the apex for both of these tremendous champions. They were never the same again. Frazier’s career came to end not long after the “Thrilla in Manila.” Ali hung on until early 1981, but he was a shell of himself as he lost his two last fights to Holmes & Trevor Berbick.
My buddy Larry was at the Ali-Holmes fight. As he has told me many times, you just don’t realize what it was like to be in an arena, and to have the heavyweight champ(s) come out of the dressing rooms and make their way to the ring.
I like to tell people that I met Ali in early March 1975, about 6 months before the 3rd Frazier fight. He came to Daytona Beach to fight an exhibition for the local boys club. My brother and I got first row ringside seats for $3 each. Ali fought 6 rounds against 2 separate opponents. He then entertained the crowd for about 30 minutes or so. As he was leaving the ring area, he shook both of our hands as he went by. It’s a truly great sports memory for me.
Who is the current heavyweight champion?