Who won The Fight Of The Century? Story, championships, result & legacy of Muhammad Ali’s fight vs. Joe Frazier

Everything you need to know about Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier.
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When someone new to boxing asks me what fight they should watch to introduce them to the sport, without a beat of silence I say Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier. This was the first fight I ever watched on the then-newly launched ESPN Classic cable channel. I know exactly where I was, and which seat of the couch I was sitting on when I first watched it. I was captivated. As a young kid then with limited historical knowledge of boxing and in the pre-YouTube era before everything was available, no one could’ve convinced me that there was a better heavyweight era than the 90s. Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Joe Lewis, and George Foreman, among others, were my heroes. 

That sentiment quickly changed the first time I watched the fight. Superfights have several criteria they need to meet to reach the pantheon of immortality. Ali vs. Frazier set a bar that will never be surpassed.

Ali vs. Frazier was the biggest fight to be made at the time and probably ever. Ali was famously stripped of his heavyweight championship for refusing to register for the draft during the Vietnam War. Frazier was given a deferment due to his family status and other issues. Much was made about Ali refusing to enter the armed services and this was instantly polarizing. He became the villain, a role he embraced. Even former heavyweight champion Joe Louis criticized Ali for not serving. This of course carried many racial implications that were on everyone’s mind. The social issues of the time made this a must-watch. And let’s face it, Ali in front of a camera with a microphone could sell BBQ ribs smothered in sauce to a woman wearing white gloves. Selling a boxing match came naturally to him.  The man could be considered the first social media influencer, and many a boxer has tried and failed to mimic his charisma and style.

Wach Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier

At the time of this fight, both Ali and Frazier were undefeated and both had a legitimate claim to the heavyweight championship. They were in their physical primes and were in immaculate shape at fight time. Both men were Olympic gold medalists; Ali won the light heavyweight crown in Rome in 1960, and Frazier took the heavyweight gold in Tokyo in 1964.  In the wake of Ali’s suspension, Frazier consolidated the WBA, WBC, and The Ring magazine belts. These were the only recognized belts of this era (Oh the good old days). Ali still had a legitimate claim to the lineal championship having won it from Sonny Liston and never losing it in the ring. It doesn’t get better than this, undefeated champion vs. undefeated champion for it all.

Here is a shocking fact fans of combat sports who weren’t alive during that era will enjoy. March 8, 1971, the night of the fight, was a Monday. That’s right, that’s not a typo. The fight easily sold out Madison Square Garden and stars from film, music, and sports filled the arena. Photos taken of people entering the fight made the event look like a mink coat convention. Frank Sinatra famously received a press credential from Life Magazine as a photographer which helped him get closer to the action. This wasn’t just a boxing match, it was a social function and the stars considered it a must-attend event.

There isn’t a single combat sports fan that hasn’t thrown down a massive amount of money for a ticket or overpaid for a PPV and walked away disappointed (Mayweather-Pacquiao anyone?). It’s part of the hard slog of being a boxing fan. But Ali vs. Frazier lived up to expectations, and from the opening round these men weren’t playing pattycake. Frazier came at Ali with bad intentions, and even though Ali would clinch and shake his head as if Frazier’s advances were futile, the damage was done. There legitimately was not a boring round in the fight. What makes that even more significant is that this was the 15-round era. Ali’s jab and straight right hand were magnificent, and Frazier’s bob-and-weave peekaboo style was the stuff of legend. Going into the 15th round, Frazier was ahead on points, but he probably did not know that and he went for it. Perhaps the greatest left hook in heavyweight championship boxing history was landed in that round. Spoiler alert, it was by Frazier, and Ali was dropped hard. He got up like a champ, took more damage, and finished the fight. Ali’s right cheek was visibly swollen from the repeated left hooks. Frazier’s face looked like he’d been assaulted in a back alley by multiple muggers with flap jacks. Frazier would win the iconic fight by unanimous decision. Both men walked away legends.

This fight was the beginning of the greatest trilogy in boxing history. Ali and Frazier would go in different directions following their first fight. Frazier would lose brutally by second-round knockout to George Foreman. Foreman would later batter Ali in the early rounds of their fight only to be knocked out after a masterful execution of the “rope a dope” by Ali. Ali and Frazier’s rematches were magnificent fights in their own right and are certainly worth your time. There has been no trilogy in modern boxing history where the promotion (for right or wrong) has tried to make comparisons to Ali-Frazier. Both the first and the third fight would win Fight of the Year honors from The Ring magazine. It is the trilogy boxing. 

Many fights in recent memory have been marketed as “the fight to save boxing.” The true legacy of Ali vs. Frazier ensures that boxing will never need saving. These two champions made boxing immortal. As long as a young kid can jump on YouTube and watch Ali vs. Frazier, boxing lives.