Joe Frazier knocked out Jimmy Ellis in the fifth round of their re-unification title bout, on February 16, 1970, at Madison Square Garden in New York. By winning the fight, the undefeated Frazier layed claim to the title of undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. The only problem with that was, there was that other undefeated, undisputed heavyweight champion who hadn’t exactly gone into hiding. His name was Muhammad Ali.
In 1967 Ali was stripped of his title when he refused induction into the Army. Ali claimed that he should have been exempt from the draft because he was a Muslim minister.
Ellis, a close associate and former sparring partner of Ali, won the WBA championship after he survived its eight-man elimination tournament between 1967 and 1968. Frazier had also been invited to compete in the tournament, but he chose not to participate. Instead, he fought and knocked out Buster Mathis (who was undefeated, but not selected by the WBA for their tournament) to win the New York State version of the title. Five other states also recognized Frazier as the champion.
Ali watched a close circuit broadcast of the Frazier-Ellis fight (along with a sold out crowd) at the old Arena, in Frazier’s home town of Philadelphia. Ali was also living in Philadelphia at that time.
The Philadelphia Bulletin reported:
The deposed champ, trim in white shirt, black tie and flared gray pin-striped trousers, did take over the audience as soon as the televised battle was over.
Feinting and mugging and shouting, he soon had the throng cheering him on. When
he got outside, Clay danced down Market Street to renewed shouts of, “Here comes the champ!” At the parking lot he climbed atop a car and shouted, to the delight of the shoving crowd trying to touch him, that “I want Frazier! I’m starting my comeback now! This town is too small for both of us!” Ali drove off to his newly purchased, $92.000 Overbrook home in a lavender Cadillac with a white top. But he did not rush. He seemed to savor the sight of fans climbing over hoods of cars to surround him.
Even during the match he found it impossible to devote himself entirely to his blow-by-blow analysis for the magazine [Esquire Magazine paid Ali $8,000 to record his reactions to the fight.], to make sure the crowd knew exactly where he was sitting, he leaped up in his seat from time to time, shouting, waving, shadow boring.
“There’s the champ.” partisans shouted. Heads turned from seats on the floor, grandstand and upper deck. He arrived while the preceding bout was on, carved a path through the crowd outside that could not get into the sold-out Arena, and held up tickets to show that he was not getting free seat favoritism.
Meanwhile, joining Frazier and Ellis on the under card, there was still another undefeated heavyweight by the name of George Foreman, who was roundly booed by the Garden crowd after he was awarded a unanimous decision following his unimpressive ten round showing against Gregorio Peralta.
The Ali-Frazier Triology
Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought for the heavyweight title three times. Their first fight, which is often referred to as “The Fight of the Century, or just “The Fight,” took place at Madison Square Garden in New York on March 8, 1971. The bout went 15 rounds and Frazier won it by a unanimous decision.
They fought a rematch, again at Madison Square Garden, on January 28, 1974. By this time, Frazier had lost his title to George Foreman, so it was a non-title bout. The fight was scheduled for 12 rounds, and went the distance. This time Ali won a close, unanimous decision. However, several sports writers, including Red Smith, thought that Frazier should have gotten the decision.
On October 30, 1974, the undefeated George Foreman attempted to defend his title against Ali. They met in Kinshasa, Zaire. The fight was branded as “The Rumble in the Jungle.” After frustrating Foreman with a tactic that he called “the rope-a-dope,” Ali won the fight by TKO in the eighth round.
After losing to Ali in their second fight, Frazier fought two ranked and “respectable” opponents, Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Ellis, and beat them both by TKO.
The Rubber Match
That set the stage for Ali-Frazier III, a fight which came to be known as “The Thrilla in Manila.” As the name suggests, the fight took place in Manila, Philippines, on October 1, 1975.
Here’s how the press reported the “Thrilla in Manila”
AP: Muhammad Ali wanted to quit In the 10th round against Joe Frazier’s incredible body attack. But he just couldn’t, he said, because “I am the champion.”
And he still is. Ali was every bit that as he fought off fantastic pressure from the pursuing Frazier to retain his title after 14 incredible rounds. Joe Frazier was every bit the champion he once was as he made a tremendous bid to regain the title and save his career. It was the third Ali-Frazier fight and it wrote an amazing end to what has been one of this sport’s most exciting and widely followed periods. “I’ve been fighting 21 years and this is the tiredest I have ever been.” said Ali, who after 11 rounds seemed headed for defeat. But he called on something extra, as he has so often has done in the past, and pounded Frazier helpless in the 13th and 14th rounds, hitting him often and hard. What almost was Smokin’ Joe’s finest hour, ended instead, with him sitting on his stool at the end of the 14th, with his trainer, Eddie Futch, signaling to referee Carlos Padilla Jr. that Frazier had had enough
Red Smith in the New York Times: When time has cooled the violent passions of the sweltering day and the definitive history is written of the five-year war between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, the objective historian will remember that Joe was still coming in at the finish.
For more than 40 minutes, the former heavyweight champion of the world, who was now the challenger, attacked the two-time champion with abandoned, almost joyous, ferocity. For seven rounds in a row he bludgeoned his man with hooks, hounding him into corners, nailing him to the ropes. And then, when Ali seemed hopelessly beaten, he came on like the good champion he is. In the 12th round, the 13th and all through the cruel 14th, Ali punched the shapeless, grinning mask that pursued him until Eddie Futch could take no more.
After 14 rounds of one of the roughest matches ever fought for the heavyweight championship, Frazier’s trainer, Futch, gave up. At his signal, the referee stopped the fight with All still champion.
All three Filipino officials had Ali leading on points at the end, but in The New York Times’ book, Futch snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. On The Times’ two scorecards, Frazier had won eight of the first 13 rounds when he walked into the blows that beat him stupid. He lost while winning, yet little Eddie was right to negotiate the surrender. Frazier’s $2-million guarantee wasn’t enough to compensate him for another round like the last.
The brilliant Shirley Povitch did not overlook the amusing coincidence of a man named Cassius, competing for a gold medal at the Rome Olympics. He wrote “Cassius has come back to Rome. He is an esteemed member of the U.S. compound in the Olympic Village. But ‘yon Cassius is not out of Shakespeare. He is out of Louisville, Kentucky, and on him the lean and hungry look looks good.”
Before he won his ticket to Rome, Clay TKO’d Allen Hudson in the third round in the finals of the Olympic trials at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. The bout was not a cakewalk for Clay. Hudson knocked him down earlier in the round. But Clay came back and nailed Hudson with a pair of rights to the head, and the referee stopped the fight.
On September 5, 1960, Clay won the gold medal defeating Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland in the final. On the way to facing Pietryzykowski, Clay had to win three fights in the qualifying rounds.
For a good part of the fight for the gold medal, it appeared that Clay, and not Pietrzykowsi would be the footnote to history. Povitch wrote that Clay “was taking a beating from Ziggy, a good puncher who has 292 fights, and Clay was seemingly the most over-rated of all the U.S. finalists…Clay could salvage this fight only by a knockout, or close to it, and that last is exactly how he did so. All of a sudden Ziggy had a bloody nose, and it seemed that Clay could hit harder than it appeared, and then the Pole had a bloody mouth, because Clay had hit him again, and then Ziggy’s whole face was a bloody mask.”
The Pole managed to stay on his feet until the final bell, but when the judges announced their decision, it was 5-0 in favor the 18-year-old Cassius Clay.