Historical story

When the undefeated Muhammad Ali was defeated by Joe Frazier

It was March 8, 1971, when, in the 15th and final round of the "fight of the century," Joe Frazier unleashed his devastating left hook on the jaw of Muhammad Ali, sending him down - for just the third time in his career - on the canvas. Ali got up relatively quickly, but the final seal of the first professional defeat of his career had just been set. Today, the Magazine , 51 years later, remembers the greatest boxing match of all time.

It was billed as "The Fight" and is considered not only the premier boxing matchup, but also the most anticipated and hyped sporting event in history. It was the first time in history that two undefeated boxers - one current and one former heavyweight champion of the world - would step into the ring to face each other for the title. The appeal was huge, escaping the narrow confines of boxing fans and provoking the interest of even those who had no contact with the sport.

And this, because beyond boxing, politics, religion, the anti-war movement, but also the characters of the two boxers, gave another, separate dimension to what happened in Madison Square Garden, New York. After all, it is no coincidence that the name that accompanies this fight to this day:"Fight of the century". But before we proceed to the "fight of the century", let's first look at some facts about the two protagonists, starting with the winner, Joe Frazier.


Joseph William Frazier was born in January 1944 in Beaufort, South Carolina and began boxing at the age of fifteen. He was discovered by a boxing trainer in Philadelphia, when he saw him punching the butchers hanging from the bars in the meat market where he worked (from there Sylvester Stallone was inspired by the similar scene in the first "Rocky"). The pinnacle of his amateur career it was winning the gold medal in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in the heavyweight division (defeating his German opponent Hans Huber in the final despite having a broken left thumb).

Joe, who liked to chew a piece of snuff because it reminded him of his father, (hence "Smokin' Joe") was a truly unstoppable force of nature. He didn't have any special technique, but his punches could tear apart any opponent. His infamous "hooks" were his second biggest weapon. Because his first characteristic, the one that made him balance his lack of technique, was his incredible resistance to the blows of his opponents.

One of the greatest grapplers (a French boxing term for boxers who take punches and immediately respond with their own) of all time, the hard-nosed Fraser was Ali's complete opposite, not only in style but also in character and personality. . He always boxed crouched, constantly moving his hands and once he found the gap to unleash his "hook", he didn't stop hitting until he knocked his opponent down.

It was exactly the style that infuriated an "upright" boxer like Ali. Outside the ring, Joe was a simple, modest, low-key family man who regularly attended his local church and was always accessible to the common people. Anti-Ali fans found in Frazier their ideal representative, although Joe himself repeatedly stated that he did not like to be used "instead of" anyone. During his career, he was defeated by only two boxers, George Foreman and Muhammad Ali (both - like himself - Olympic gold medalists and world champions).


Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was born in January 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky and began boxing at the age of twelve, initially at the amateur level. In 1960, at the age of 18, he won the gold medal at the Rome Olympics (the youngest boxer in history to do so) in the light heavyweight division (-81 kg). His first professional appearances made an impression more because of his demeanor, as he used to address his opponents in a haughty and ironic style, adopting for himself the nickname "the Greatest".

His phrase with which he characterized himself has remained historical:"I fly like a butterfly, I sting like a bee". Naturally, his behavior - in and out of the ring - drew both the admiration of some of the sport's fans and pundits, and the ire of others. Cassius Clay was a charismatic boxer, certainly one of the best in the sport and one of the greatest world sports figures of all time. A wonderful dancer and craftsman.

The key to Clay's success was his speed. He had lightning quick hands and his left jab could decide a fight. He also had the ability to avoid his opponent's punches by using his legs a lot. During the matches he kept his hands quite low and tried to avoid the blows more with the movement of his body, instead of the usual passive defense.

On February 25, 1964, he challenged Sonny Liston for the world title for the first time, defeating him relatively easily in the 6th round (the youngest boxer - aged 22 - to achieve this against a reigning world champion, a record later broken by Mike Tyson in his 20s). But somewhere there the problems started. A few days after his victory, Clay announced that he had joined the "Nation of Islam" (Nation of Islam), an extremist organization that called the white race "demon", and shortly after his spiritual guide, Elijah Muhammad, gave him the name Muhammad Ali.


"Now I don't have to be who you want me to be. I'm free to be who I want," were his first words to reporters with his new identity. In the years that followed, Ali dominated the arenas like few boxers in the history of the sport. He successfully defended his title against Liston in May 1965, knocking out his opponent in the first round of the fight.

Other impressive victories over such great boxers as Floyd Patterson (whom he literally dismembered in revenge for insisting on calling him by his first name, Cassius Clay), Henry Cooper and Brian London followed. To understand what a "machine" we are talking about, on November 14, 1966, in his fight with Cleveland Williams, in just three rounds, he managed to hit his opponent more than a hundred times, knocking him down four times, while he received only three strikes.

In April 1967, during the Vietnam War, he refused to enlist in the US Army for religious reasons, saying the historic phrase "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong - no Viet Cong ever called me nigger" no conflict with the Vietcong, none of them ever called me an Arab). For this attitude, he faced strong criticism from a large part of the American public opinion, and after a trial, he was stripped of his champion title and boxing license.

He was banned from all United States sports for three and a half years and sentenced to five years in prison, a sentence that was overturned four years later by the US Supreme Court. During the 1960s, Ali generally stood out for his stance on issues related to African American freedom and rights, exerting considerable influence primarily among the youth and especially the progressive—and anti-Vietnam War—university community.


While all this was happening, the organizers of professional boxing matches were trying to find Ali's successor. And it didn't take them long to discover him in the face - or rather the fists - of Joe Fraser. On February 16, 1970, Frazier defeated Jimmy Ellis in New York and officially took the title of World Heavyweight Champion. Ali did not see this development with a good eye and at every opportunity he emphasized to the media that the only and real champion was himself.

What he was trying to achieve, of course, was to have his ban lifted and be able to face Frazier in a final showdown in the ring. In August 1970 - while Ali's appeal was still pending - the state of Georgia issued a boxing license in his name, and a month later, on appeal, Ali was vindicated in federal court, which ruled that the removal of his boxing license was illegal and abusive.


The judge ordered immediate redress and the New York State Boxing Commission was ordered to reinstate the former world champion's license. On October 26, in his comeback after 3.5 years, Ali faced Jerry Quarry and "cleaned" after three rounds. In December of the same year, he achieved his 31st straight victory against one of the strongest boxers of the era, Argentine Oscar Bonavena, after a dramatic fight that was decided by technical knockout in the 15th round.

In doing so he earned the right to challenge for the world title from Frazier and the big meeting was set for March 8, 1971. Ali had three months to prepare his come-back. The fact that both opponents "started" from the position of world champion (Frazier as the holder, and Ali as the former but without having lost the title in a fight), added even more interest to the already highly anticipated matchup .


The big meeting was arranged to take place at "Madison Square Garden" in New York. Each of the two boxers had agreed to collect $2.5 million regardless of the result, the largest sum ever paid in the history of the sport for a single fight. Anything to do with the impending Frazier-Ali "clash" was at the center of global attention. Radio, television and print media covered the event daily for many weeks before.

The tension and anticipation grew day by day. The 20,455 tickets made available were sold out. The most expensive, "ringside seats", i.e. the seats around the ring, cost 150 dollars (about 875 today's euros), while the total receipts (only from tickets) amounted to 1.5 million dollars (about 8,750,000 today's euros). About 300 million people around the world watched the match from their television receivers, a world record viewership for the time.

50 countries had bought the rights, while the broadcast and commentary were in 12 different languages. The match was also broadcast via closed-circuit television and film, using pay per view (in the US alone, an estimated 2.5 million viewers watched the match this way, a record number for the time). In London, 90,000 people watched the match in the night in cinemas, while overall in Great Britain, TV viewers via BBC1, reached 27.5 million, a number that then corresponded to half the population of the country!

The profits from pay per view alone, in the USA and Great Britain, reached 46 million dollars (about 275 million today's euros). Other notable numbers were 5.5 million viewers in Italy and 2 million viewers in South Korea. Riots broke out in theaters showing the fight in several US cities when, due to technical problems, the broadcast was interrupted during the third round. In terms of betting, Frazier was 6 to 5 against Ali.

The atmosphere before the start of the match was absolutely electrifying. The 20,445 spectators who had flooded "Madison Square Garden" were constantly on their feet shouting slogans in favor of the two rivals. Many famous people of the time were inside the stadium. Frank Sinatra, who had not been able to secure a ringside seat, was finally able to find himself in a prominent position after "Life" magazine assigned him to photograph the match.

Officials included Woody Allen, Michael Caine, Bill Cosby, Sammy Davis Jr., Barbra Streisand, Dustin Hoffman, Diana Ross, Hugh Hefner, Miles Davis, Diane Keaton, Ed Sullivan and Sugar Ray Robinson (former world boxing champion). Burt Lancaster was one of the television commentators, something he did for the first time in his life, at the invitation of the race organizer, Jerry Perencio. The other commentators were Don Dunphy and Archie Moore, a former boxer.

Arthur Marcante Sr., one of the greatest of all time, was appointed referee for the meeting. Ali had a 9-point advantage in height (1.91 vs. his opponent's 1.82) and 18 points in arm span (2.03 vs. Frazier's 1.85), while weighing 97.5 kg. Fraser weighed in at 93.2kg. Both Ali and Frazier were undefeated up to that point, 31-0 (25 knockouts) the record of the former, 26-0 (23 knockouts) the record of the latter.

Almost all the experts gave Frazier as the favorite, considering that no matter how well Ali had prepared, in a fight of such high demands, the more than three years absence of the contender from the rings would play an important role. Four days before the fight, on March 4, in their television appearance, journalists Howard Cosell and Jimmy Breslin, as well as Joe Louis, a "legend" of heavyweights, correctly predicted that the winner of the fight would be Frazier.


On the evening of March 8, 1971, Arthur Marcande told the two opponents the rules and soon after the bell rang to start the 15-round bout. Ali was better in the first two rounds, throwing countless jabs (remember, small jump shots) in the face of the shorter Frazier. But a fight against Smokin' Joe was a real war. "If you hit him, he'll like it. If you knock him down, you'll just piss him off," the great George Foreman said of Frazier.

In the last seconds of the third round, Frazier managed a terrible hook (remember, a closed corner blow, that is, a hook but from a very close distance) on Ali's jaw. From the fourth round onwards, Frazier began to dominate. Ali stopped "dancing" and it became apparent how much his long absence had affected him. At the same time, Fraser resembled a maniac. He threw as many blows in each round (not only left hooks, but also terrible punches to the body of Ali, constantly throwing him into the ropes), as boxers of the same class throw in an entire fight.

The 6th round was over and Ali's prediction was completely wrong (he had told reporters before the fight that he would knock out his opponent in that round). As soon as the final bell rang, Fraser gave him a wry smile. Ali, from that point on, was visibly tired, and despite landing a series of powerful blows on Frazier, it seemed he could no longer keep up with the pace he had set in the first third of the fight.

At 1 minute and 59 seconds into the 8th round, Frazier, right after a clean left hook to the jaw of Ali, grabbed him by the wrists and brought him to the middle of the ring, but Ali immediately hugged him until Markade broke up once again. Experts claim that the "momentum" of the fight changed completely in the 9th round, after an incredible barrage of left-right hooks unleashed by Frazier against Ali.


Already in the 8th round, Ali could not continue his known style - standing and constantly chasing the opponent - and Frazier began to throw him on the ropes. Αυτό προκάλεσε την έκπληξη των θεατών, ήταν κάτι που συνέβαινε για πρώτη φορά στην καριέρα του Αλί. Στο 9ο δευτερόλεπτο του 11ου γύρου, ο Φρέιζερ έριξε ένα ακόμα αριστερό hook στον Αλί, ο οποίος αμέσως μετά γλίστρησε (από νερά που υπήρχαν στη γωνία του Φρέιζερ) και ακούμπησε το καναβάτσο με το γόνατο και τα γάντια του.

Αμέσως σηκώθηκε και ο Μαρκάντε τού σκούπισε τα γάντια φωνάζοντας "no knockdown". Καθώς απέμεναν 49 δευτερόλεπτα για να ολοκληρωθεί ο 11ος γύρος, ο Αλί που βρισκόταν παγιδευμένος σε μια γωνιά του ρινγκ, δέχτηκε ένα αριστερό hook στο πρόσωπο που τον αιφνιδίασε και τον άφησε χωρίς άμυνα. Ο Φρέιζερ εκμεταλλεύτηκε την ευκαιρία και προσγείωσε ένα ακόμα αριστερό hook, πολύ πιο δυνατό αυτή τη φορά, κάνοντας τα γόνατα του Αλί να λυγίσουν.

Όλοι πίστεψαν πως ο "Greatest" θα έπεφτε, αλλά αυτός κρατήθηκε και άρχισε να τρέχει για να αποφύγει τον Φρέιζερ που τον ακολουθούσε προσπαθώντας να τον αποτελειώσει. Τελικά, παρά το ότι έχασε δυο φορές ακόμα την ισορροπία του, κατάφερε να αντέξει μέχρι το καμπανάκι, κάνοντας κωμικές κινήσεις - ότι δήθεν τα πόδια του έτρεμαν - προσπαθώντας να δείξει στους θεατές ότι και στο χτύπημα που μόλις είχε δεχθεί, έκανε θέατρο. Όμως λίγοι πείστηκαν από την "παράστασή" του. Ο Φρέιζερ είχε προειδοποιήσει.

Στους δυο επόμενους γύρους οι δυο μποξέρ, εξαντλημένοι από τον αγώνα, χαλάρωσαν λίγο, προσπαθώντας να μαζέψουν δυνάμεις για το φινάλε. Στον 14ο γύρο ο Αλί έκανε ένα σοβαρό λάθος τακτικής:ξόδεψε ό,τι είχε και δεν είχε, εξαπολύοντας μια φοβερή επίθεση και δίνοντας μερικές από τις καλύτερες γροθιές του, χωρίς όμως αποτέλεσμα. Όταν ξεκίνησε ο 15ος γύρος, και οι τρεις κριτές έδιναν μπροστά τον Φρέιζερ (8-6-0, 10-4-0, 7-6-1). Απέμεναν τρία λεπτά για να ολοκληρωθεί ο δραματικός αγώνας.


Μόλις στο 25ο δευτερόλεπτο του 15ου γύρου, ο Αλί άφησε τελείως εκτεθειμένη τη δεξιά του πλευρά. Αν κοιτάξετε στο βίντεο, θα δείτε πως τα χέρια του θυμίζουν αργή κίνηση. Ο Φρέιζερ δε χρειάστηκε δεύτερη σκέψη. Έστειλε έναν αριστερό κεραυνό πάνω στο σαγόνι του αντιπάλου του, γκρεμίζοντάς τον με ορμή, ανάσκελα, με τα πόδια στον αέρα. Ήταν μόλις η τρίτη φορά που συνέβαινε κάτι τέτοιο στη διάρκεια της καριέρας του Αλί. Ο πληγωμένος εγωισμός του, τον έκανε να σηκωθεί αμέσως επάνω και να αντέξει μέχρι και τη λήξη του αγώνα.

Όμως όλα είχαν τελειώσει. Ο Αλί, ζαλισμένος και επηρεασμένος, αλλά και με εμφανώς πρησμένο σαγόνι, δεν μπόρεσε να αντιδράσει στο επιθετικό κρεσέντο του Φρέιζερ, που δε σταμάτησε να εξαπολύει τρομερά χτυπήματα μέχρι να ακουστεί το τελευταίο καμπανάκι. Η απόφαση ήταν ομόφωνη (9-6-0, 11-4-0, 8-6-1 οι βαθμολογίες των τριών κριτών, όλες υπέρ του "Smokin' Joe"). Ο Τζο Φρέιζερ είχε υπερασπιστεί με επιτυχία τον τίτλο του παγκόσμιου πρωταθλητή, ενώ ο Μοχάμεντ Αλί είχε γνωρίσει την πρώτη ήττα της καριέρας του.


Ο αγώνας ήταν τόσο βίαιος που οι δυο πυγμάχοι μεταφέρθηκαν κατευθείαν στο νοσοκομείο για νοσηλεία. Ο Αλί δεν παραδέχτηκε ποτέ δημόσια την ήττα του, δηλώνοντας ότι το αποτέλεσμα είχε διαμορφωθεί από την "απόφαση του λευκού ανθρώπου" (όλοι οι κριτές ήταν λευκοί). Ο Φρέιζερ διατήρησε για 22 μήνες ακόμα τον τίτλο, για να τον χάσει με τη σειρά του τον Ιανουάριο του 1973 από τον Τζορτζ Φόρμαν στο Κίνγκστον της Τζαμάικας, με τεχνικό νοκ-άουτ μόλις στον δεύτερο γύρο, σε έναν αγώνα που έμεινε γνωστός ως "The Sunshine Showdown".

Φρέιζερ και Αλί συναντήθηκαν ακόμα δυο φορές στο ρινγκ, τον Ιανουάριο του 1974 στο "Ali vs Freizer II" (ξανά στο Madison Square Garden) και τον Οκτώβριο του 1975 στο περίφημο "Thrilla in Manila" (στις Φιλιππίνες). Στην πρώτη από αυτές τις δυο αναμετρήσεις, ο νικητής θα κέρδιζε το δικαίωμα να διεκδικήσει τον παγκόσμιο τίτλο από τον Φόρμαν. Ο Αλί πήρε τη ρεβάνς από τον Φρέιζερ και στη συνέχεια, τον Οκτώβριο του 1974, πήρε και τον τίτλο από τον Φόρμαν στο θρυλικό "The Rumble in the Jungle" (στην Κινσάσα του Ζαΐρ).

Στη δεύτερη (συνολικά τρίτη) αναμέτρησή τους, οι ρόλοι πλέον είχαν αντιστραφεί. Ο Αλί ήταν ο παγκόσμιος πρωταθλητής και ο Φρέιζερ ο διεκδικητής. Και εκεί, νικητής αναδείχθηκε ο Αλί με τεχνικό νοκ-άουτ, διατηρώντας τον τίτλο του. Και οι δυο είναι σήμερα μέλη του International Boxing Hall of Fame, ενώ αμφότεροι έχουν φύγει από τη ζωή, ο Φρέιζερ το 2011 και ο Αλί το 2016. Οι προσωπικές τους σχέσεις υπήρξαν πάντοτε θέμα συζήτησης. Ξεκίνησαν ως φίλοι, ο Φρέιζερ είχε δανείσει χρήματα στον Αλί, όταν του αφαίρεσαν την πυγμαχική άδεια, ενώ είχε υποστηρίξει δημόσια και την άρνησή του να πολεμήσει στο Βιετνάμ.

Όλα όμως άλλαξαν μετά το "Fight of the century". Ο Αλί εκεί είχε αυτοχαρακτηριστεί ως "ο επαναστάτης και ο πρωταθλητής του κινήματος των δικαιωμάτων των πολιτών", λέγοντας πως ο Φρέιζερ ήταν η "ελπίδα των λευκών", ένα πιόνι στις επιδιώξεις τους. Γι' αυτό και τον αποκαλούσε υποτιμητικά "Uncle Tom" (Μπάρμπα Θωμά, από τον ήρωα του μυθιστορήματος "Η καλύβα του μπάρμπα-Θωμά" της Χάριετ Μπίτσερ Στόου, μια έκφραση που τη χρησιμοποιούσαν οι μαύροι για να μειώσουν εκείνους τους μαύρους που ήταν υποτελείς και πιστοί στους λευκούς αφέντες τους).

Ο Φρέιζερ, για να του το ανταποδώσει, τον αποκαλούσε Κλέι, κάτι που εξόργιζε τον Αλί. Με αυτή την επιθετική του τακτική, ο Αλί, που παρουσιαζόταν ως ήρωας των καταπιεσμένων της φυλής του, κατάφερε να στρέψει μεγάλη μερίδα μαύρων εναντίον του Φρέιζερ, ο οποίος ποτέ δεν είχε τοποθετηθεί ανοιχτά για ρατσιστικά θέματα. Από τότε και για πολλά χρόνια, οι εκατέρωθεν δηλώσεις τους, θύμιζαν παιδικές "κοκορομαχίες", με αρκετές από αυτές να έχουν μείνει στην ιστορία. Χρειάστηκε να περάσουν ολόκληρες δεκαετίες, μέχρι να επέλθει η συμφιλίωση.

Το 2009, ο Φρέιζερ είχε πει σε συνέντευξή του στο ESPN, ότι δεν κρατούσε πλέον κακία στον Αλί. Δυο χρόνια μετά, όταν ο Φρέιζερ πέθανε, ο Αλί - ήδη με την ασθένεια του Πάρκινσον - παραβρέθηκε στην κηδεία του στην Φιλαδέλφεια. Όταν ο αιδεσιμώτατος Τζέσε Τζάκσον ολοκλήρωσε την εκφώνηση του επικήδειου και ζήτησε από τους παρευρισκόμενους να σταθούν όρθιοι και να δείξουν την αγάπη τους στον Φρέιζερ, ο Αλί σηκώθηκε και χειροκρότησε συγκινημένος τον παλιό μεγάλο του αντίπαλο.


- Αλί: "Έφαγε τέτοιο ξύλο ο Τζο που όπως βλέπετε είναι ακόμα στο νοσοκομείο" (στην έξοδό του από το νοσοκομείο όπου βρισκόταν για νοσηλεία μετά τον αγώνα και ενώ ο Φρέιζερ παρέμενε ακόμα σε αυτό).

- Φρέιζερ: "Αυτοαποκαλείται ο Μέγιστος. Αλλά δεν είναι ο Μέγιστος. Αποστολή μου είναι να του δείξω πόσο έξω έχει πέσει ο παρανοημένος εγωισμός του. Και να του το χτυπήσω στα μούτρα" (λίγες μέρες πριν τον αγώνα).

- Αλί: "Ο Φρέιζερ; Πρόκειται για έναν άσχημο γορίλα, έναν μπάρμπα-Θωμά".

- Φρέιζερ: "Εμένα αποκάλεσε μπάρμπα-Θωμά; Ποιος; Αυτός που προσέλαβε λευκό δικηγόρο για να βγει από τη φυλακή;"

- Αλί: "Κατά κάποιο τρόπο ο Τζο έχει δίκιο. Είπα πολλά υποτιμητικά γι' αυτόν στο παρελθόν που δε θα έπρεπε. Ζητώ συγνώμη γι' αυτό, λυπάμαι. Ήταν όλα για να προωθήσω τον αγώνα" (στους New York Times το 2001). Ο Φρέιζερ όταν το πληροφορήθηκε, απάντησε πως δε δέχεται τη συγνώμη γιατί δεν απευθύνεται στον ίδιο, αλλά στην εφημερίδα. Και όταν ο Αλί το έμαθε, πήρε πάλι τους New York Times και είπε στον συντάκτη που είχε κάνει και την προηγούμενη δήλωση:"Άμα ξαναδείς τον Φρέιζερ, πες του ότι παραμένει ένας άσχημος γορίλας" (!!!).

- Φρέιζερ: "Ξεχείλισα από οργή όταν είδα τον Αλί να ανάβει τον βωμό με την ολυμπιακή φλόγα στην Ατλάντα. Πολύ θα ήθελα να τον πετάξω μέσα" (!!!).

Πέρα όμως από όλα αυτά, το σίγουρο είναι ότι οι δυο τους, εκείνο το βράδυ της 8ης Μαρτίου του 1971 στο Madison Square Garden, έθεσαν καινούργια πρότυπα στην πυγμαχία. Η αντιπαλότητά τους δημιούργησε την πιο δραματική και θρυλική τριλογία της πυγμαχικής ιστορίας. Οι μποξέρ πάντοτε θα αγωνίζονται, αλλά ελάχιστοι θα το κάνουν με τις ικανότητες, τη θέληση, το κουράγιο και την αποφασιστικότητα του Τζο Φρέιζερ και του Μοχάμεντ Αλί...

Βίντεο:Φρέιζερ vs Αλί Ι, ολόκληρος ο αγώνας (8/3/1971). Το κρίσιμο αριστερό hook του Φρέιζερ, στο 1:03:30.

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