Regarded as one of the finest sporting rivalries in history, what the late, legendary duo of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier left in the ring over three legs will remain eternally glorious. From ‘The Fight of the Century’ to ‘The Thrilla in Manila’, we take a look back in time at the iconic, often gruelling, Ali-Frazier trilogy.
FRAZIER-ALI I – “The Fight of the Century…”
With the eyes of the sporting world firmly locked on what would later unfold into a heavyweight classic between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, the rivalry that stemmed between the then-unbeaten pair during the build-up was about so much more than boxing.
Ali – preparing for his third fight back after a politically driven spell of inactivity – had evolved into an anti-establishment icon after denouncing the Vietnam war. During the build-up, he angered Frazier immensely by labelling him an “Uncle Tom” and painting him to be a symbol of white hope – stoking the flames of what would later become a barn-burner for the ages.
With more than 300 million people around the globe tuning in for their WBA/WBC showdown, the fired up heavyweight pair exceeded already sky-high expectations. Ali got the better of the opening three rounds – marking up the champion’s face with his stiff jab. Frazier, however, started to land heavy blows to the body of Ali, whilst also finding a home on several occasions with his now-iconic left hook in the mid rounds.
With the fight close heading into the home stretch, Frazier pinned Ali with a left hook in the eleventh that left ‘The Greatest’ shook. Ali recovered reasonably well in the three rounds that followed, though a dramatic 15th and final session awaited.
Reigning champion Frazier dipped down before nailing his adversary once more over the top with a left hand of nuclear proportions – sending Ali crashing to the canvas. The Louisville man showcased his sheer will and iron chin by beating the ten-count, though Frazier had sealed a career-defining victory. Following the final bell, the scorecards read 11-4, 9-6 and 8-6 – all in Smokin’ Joe’s favour.
ALI-FRAZIER II – “Revenge…”
Just shy of three years on from their epic first encounter, Ali and Frazier met once more at Madison Square Garden over twelve rounds. The title-hunting pair were both not only fighting to settle a bitter feud, but to also secure a shot at World heavyweight champion George Foreman with a victory. Foreman had previously swatted Frazier just a year earlier.
Though the 2nd instalment of the Ali-Frazier series is perhaps the least memorable of the three, the build-up was no less intense. Whilst reviewing their first fight at the ABC Studios, Ali infuriated Frazier by branding him “ignorant”. The pair grappled on the studio floor before being separated, and a $5,000 fine was issued to both by the NYSAC for their conduct.
Four rounds into the rematch, it was clear that Ali had learned a great deal from his maiden defeat to Smokin’ Joe in 1971. Rather than standing toe-to-toe, sitting on the ropes or showboating, ‘The Greatest’ circled away from the left hand that had previously caused him so much trouble, and tied his rival up whenever danger loomed.
Frazier finally found a frequent home for his left hook in the seventh round, though Ali responded well in the ninth with several peppering right hands and an uppercut that left Smokin’ Joe on unsteady legs. Ali shuffled his way to victory in the final round, having neutralised the danger of Frazier for large spells with both his movement and clinching.
Both Frazier and legendary trainer Eddie Futch were furious about Ali’s holding during the fight, though the night would belong to ‘The Greatest’ – with the scorecards showing 8-4, 7-4 and 6-5 in his favour. This cleared the way for Ali to face Foreman in ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’.
ALI-FRAZIER III – “The Thrilla in Manila…”
Considered by many to be the best heavyweight fight of all time, the third and final chapter of the Ali-Frazier rivalry was pure, taxing, gruelling violence. Both men showcased their sheer will and greatness to the world during some of the hardest-fought championship rounds ever witnessed.
Ali – who had a great deal of success by utilising lateral movement and circling away from Frazier’s left hook in the 2nd fight – signalled his intentions early doors by meeting Frazier in the centre of the ring and unloading bombs. Smokin’ Joe, however, was not deterred – walking through shots to land some brutal bodywork of his own.
Frazier’s body punching appeared to have paid dividends, as the former heavyweight ruler began to slow down Ali by the sixth round. The middle sessions belonged to Frazier, as he continued to come forward like a man possessed. Ali threw back in bunches to try and deter his heavyweight rival at times, though Frazier appeared to be unfazed by what was coming his way.
Frazier, however, began to unravel down the home stretch, with Ali finding a second wind to seize control once more. ‘The Greatest’ landed en mass on Frazier in the 11th – with Smokin’ Joe’s eyes starting to swell to the point where he was struggling to see what was coming towards him.
Ali assaulted the now near-blind Frazier – smashing him with left hooks and right hands in the 12th, 13th and 14th rounds. With one round to go, Eddie Futch had seen enough and decided to pull Frazier out. “It’s all over. No one will forget what you did here today,” Futch told him, before sparing Smokin’ Joe from further punishment.
Ali, completely exhausted in the opposite corner, rose from his stool to celebrate victory before dropping down with sheer fatigue and elation. The night belonged to ‘The Greatest’, though neither man would truly be the same after what they had given to the sporting world in the Metro Manila that evening.