By Robert A. Vella
The passing of legendary boxer and cultural icon Muhammad Ali made me recall a highly anticipated sporting event which turned into a momentous symbol of racial friction in America. The date was March 8th 1971. The venue was New York City’s historic Madison Square Garden arena. The combatants were undisputed world heavyweight champion “Smokin'” Joe Frazier and former champion Muhammad Ali who was returning to the ring after a three-year exile for refusing to serve in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War (Ali’s criminal conviction as a “draft dodger” was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier that year on the basis of him being a “conscientious objector” to war).
The boxing match was promoted as the “Fight of the Century;” but, it was much more than that. In the wake of the tumultuous civil rights and anti-war clashes of the 1960s, the nation was still torn over these issues, still seething with pent-up rage on both sides. And, there was even more to the story.
Ali was the brash pugilist who vociferously used his notoriety to focus attention on the plight of Black America. Frazier was the opposite, a reserved, respectful, no-nonsense professional athlete. The two could not have been different, except that both were African-American.
White America rallied behind Frazier like they had for “Great White Hope” challenger James J. Jeffries in his unsuccessful 1910 comeback bout with another brash black boxing champion, the supremely talented Jack Johnson. However, there were reasons other than racial animosity for their support of Frazier. Culturally, whites admired Smokin’ Joe’s humble style much as they liked the “Brown Bomber” Joe Louis three decades earlier. Still, the psychology of white guilt was at work here as well. White folks who were not overt racists typically reacted with indignation when confronted with activists who spoke aggressively on racial injustice.
In the lead-up to the fight, Ali exacerbated the situation by calling Frazier an “Uncle Tom.” This angered Frazier to no end since he neither saw himself that way nor accepted the role as a boxing champion for white people. His determination and skill, combined with a ring-rusty Ali, propelled Smokin’ Joe to a unanimous 15-round decision victory punctuated by a powerful left hook landed in the 11th round which knocked Ali to the canvas sending his red-tasseled feet flailing into the air.
They fought two more times both contests won by Ali, back in the Garden on January 28th 1974 and at Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City, Philippines on October 1st 1975. The latter bout was hyped by Ali with very insulting remarks towards Frazier as physically “ugly” in addition to this famous quote:
“It will be a killa and a thrilla and a chilla when I get the Gorilla in Manila.”
Afterwards, he said this of the incredibly brutal fight:
“It was like death. Closest thing to dyin’ that I know of.”
Today, White and Black America – despite their ongoing difficulties – acknowledge not only the greatest heavyweight boxer in history, but also the social necessity and impact of his controversial actions. Muhammad Ali simply was “The Greatest,” like he told us so many times.