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Forty Years Later, The Fight of the Century Lives On

Head on over to Bad Left Hook, SB Nation's excellent boxing blog.

Muhammad Ali.
Muhammad Ali.

I’m just 24 years old. I know all about things like Xbox-360, reality television and Twitter. I know about the gargantuan enterprise that is the NFL, the NBA where players decide where and who they want to play with, and an NHL that knows as much about defining its stars as I do about medieval Russian art. I know about baseball players jacked up on performance enhancers, Egypt as a free country, and an African American President of the United States. At 24, I know plenty of things. There’s one thing I don’t know, something I’ve never experienced: A truly transcendent boxing match.

Forty years ago today, March 8, 1971, the biggest boxing match in the history of the sport took place. They didn’t call it The Fight of the Century for nothing; Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden. Good vs. evil. It was the event that made the Garden. It gave that big circle on Seventh Avenue the name “The World’s Most Famous Arena”.

Wait, you thought it was because of all those great Knicks and Rangers teams? Wait, let me count the title banners.That was quick.

This was so much more than a fight between two undefeated boxers for the undisputed heavyweight championship. The social impact of the fight was staggering, and that was because of Ali, probably the most dynamic athlete ever. When you think of Ali today, you think of a beloved icon, how everyone looks at him sadly as he suffers the effects of Parkinson’s that have overtaken him. People have forgotten how much he was loathed, especially at the time of the first Frazier fight. His refusal to serve in Vietnam vilified him (this was just his third fight since returning to the ring), and his cockiness compounded the hate. Pro-war Americans despised him, labeling him unpatriotic. Anti-war Americans saw him as a sign of freedom and resistance.

We’ve gotten used to athletes trash talking, proclaiming their greatness, posing after every shot or sack or touchdown. Ali invented athlete swagger. He was bigger than the game, bigger than the sport. You either loved him or hated him. The world stopped to watch him, no more so than for The Fight of the Century.

Frazier was never a huge star by himself, as talented and bullish as he was. He needed Ali, and knew it, helping Ali financially as he struggled upon returning from exile. Frazier gave Ali the fight he so dearly sought, and the one he needed to become a rich man (they both made $2.5 million that night).  His victory over Ali made Smokin’ Joe’s career. There is no Fight of the Century without Ali. All you need to know is that besides beating Ali in their first fight (Ali won the trilogy 2-1, taking their second fight at the Garden along with the “Thrilla in Manila”), Frazier is probably known best for getting knocked out by George Foreman and Howard Cosell yelling “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” That’s not a knock against Frazier. It just proves the transcendence of Ali.

It’s hard for me, at my age, to imagine what the fight was like, and more so, the prominence and importance of it. No current sporting event comes close to having the social implications that Ali-Frazier I did. Because of the modern world I grew up in, I can only think of what it would be like if the fight took place during today’s Internet, 24-hour sports coverage, and social media-driven world. How many pay-per-view buys would it have gotten? Would they have charged more than the standard $60 that a Manny Pacquiao or Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight costs? Would #thegreatest be a trending topic?

As a boxing fan, I can only dream of a fight ever being this big. I will not get into the “Is boxing dead?” argument here. It’s not, but that’s a discussion for another day. But what seems to be dead, and not because of boxing’s faults, is the idea of a transcendent fight. Mayweather has set pay-per-view records, but does anyone believe that those records would be what they are had Ali fought on pay-per-view? Mayweather may believe he’s better than Ali, pointing to his perfect yet invalidated record. But even Mayweather isn’t foolish enough to believe he’s a bigger star than Ali was, or think he could ever command the international attention the way Ali did.

Pacquiao is the sport’s best fighter, (as Mayweather fights in the courts more these days than in the ring) and a wonderful one to watch. Anyone who hasn’t watched Manny fight needs to pony up the cash to do so, because it’s an unbelievable sight to see. He’s pulled in over a million pay-per-view buys for fights in three consecutive years, which is incredibly impressive. He owns the sport right now, the way no one has since Tyson. But he’s not bigger than Tyson, so by default, he doesn’t touch Ali.

It’s apparent where this is going. Would Mayweather-Pacquiao become the Fight of THIS Century? So far, by default, yes. It would set all-time pay-per-view records, the buildup would be immense, and it would have people talking. But unless the actual fight was at an all-time level in terms of excitement and drama, it’d be a safer bet that a few weeks after the fact we’d be back to talking about the NFL Scouting Combine or LeBron James’ chase for a title. Unless it was truly special, we wouldn’t be talking about it forty years from now.

We’re talking about Ali-Frazier 40 years later. That’s because of Ali. Just think; Ali lost that night. It wasn’t about those 15 rounds then, and it’s not about them now. It’s about Ali, and the attention he commanded. You couldn’t show up to the water cooler on Monday morning asking who won the Ali-Frazier fight. It just wouldn’t happen. You already knew. I can dream that someday I’ll see a fight capture the world’s attention the way The Fight of the Century did forty years ago today. One day, I will see it.

But what do I know? I’m just 24 years old.