It was 39 Years Ago This Month When Ali and Frazier First Met
By Evan Weiner
March 9, 2010
The late Don Dunphy was the voice of boxing for more than 40 years doing all sorts of fights on radio and TV. He was the blow-by-blow announcer for what may have been boxing’s biggest night ever, March 8, 1971 when Muhammad Ali took on Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden in New York in “The Fight of the Century.”
Dunphy, years later, did not think the Ali-Frazier fight was “The Fight of the Century” and in fact it probably was not even in the top 5 fights he ever called on radio and TV. But the long time boxing announcer felt that it probably was the most spectacular boxing event ever held.
The Ali-Frazier contest had one of the most massive publicity campaigns ever surrounding a fight. Ali was the villain to some while Frazier was a hero and it all had to do with the Vietnam War. Ali refused to be inducted into the military in 1967 because he objected to the war while Frazier might have served if asked. Ali lost his boxing license and the ability to fight because of his legal problems in refusing to serve and while he was away from the ring Frazier was dismantling his opponents.
Ali had won all of his 31 fights prior to the Frazier bout. Smokin’ Joe Frazier was victorious in all 26 of his fights. Both fighters were guaranteed a big payday as each man was given $2.5 million, a record purse, for just showing up.
Ali and Frazier were not the only two in attendance that night. It was more than a fight; it was a gala for celebrities as the biggest names in show biz flocked to the Garden. Burt Lancaster was the analyst with Dunphy on the closed circuit presentation of the fight which was shown in movie theaters across the United States even though the actor had never done any sports or boxing commentary in his life.
Woody Allen, who was getting his acting and movie career into the fast lane, was there. Diana Ross, without the Supremes as she had just separated from the group. and Dustin Hoffman were watching. The world was watching as well.
“I did an awful lot of fights, some were more important than others and some were better fights than others. But if you make me pick one, I have to pick the first Ali-Frazier fight in 1971 at the Garden,” said Dunphy. “Not the greatest fight of all time. A good fight but not great. But it was the most memorable evening that I ever remember.
“I think it was the greatest sports event of all time up to that time anyway. Bigger than the World Series, bigger than the Super Bowl or what. I just think that night….we had two undefeated champions, both of them great fighters Ali and Frazier and that to me stands out.”
Dunphy had a seat to history and probably had the biggest audience listening to him in his career but in many ways, the Ali-Frazier fight to him was just another bout.
“I always said to myself, I am not going to see any punches that I haven’t seen before and that was my attitude from the beginning,” said the long time boxing announcer. “The first big fight I ever did was Joe Louis and Billy Conn in 1941, 30 years earlier but I said to myself, keep calm you are not going to see anything you never saw before and that has always been my attitude. It doesn’t matter, if you are broadcasting to one or nobody or several million, it is the same show.
“I always recall up in the ring after the Ali-Frazier fight, I went up to get an interview with Joe Frazier, who had won the fight, and I went to one of the commissioners who had been in the ring and I said what do you think? He said, off-the-record. I said, off-the-record, there are 250 million people watching, you can’t be off the record.
“That was about the audience for that fight.”
Dunphy quickly came up with better fights than Ali-Frazier on March 8, 1971.
“It was a real good fight, no I had seen better,” he said. “(Tony) Zale-(Rocky) Graziano was better, the third Ali-Frazier fight was better than that one, the Thrilla in Manila, the (Carmen) Basillio-(Sugar Ray) Robinson, Robinson-(Jake) LaMotta; they were all from the fight standpoint but to me that was no evening that could touch that one for glamour.
“Everybody was at the Garden. Frank Sinatra got in because he was taking pictures for Life magazine. Oh it was a wonderful night.”
The fight itself took a lot out of both Ali and Frazier. Ali won the early rounds and began to fade in the middle. Frazier knocked down Ali in both the 11th and 15th rounds and won a unanimous decision. Ali went to the hospital after the bout to get x-rays on his jaw and Frazier spent some time in the hospital a month after the bout. But Frazier was the undisputed World Heavyweight Champion.
Ali-Frazier would meet again in 1974 and in 1975. The public clamor in 1974 was not as rabid as in 1971 but the fights were highly anticipated. Things had changed though for both men. Frazier was no longer the champions having lost to George Foreman in 1973 and for this fight, the build up started in an ABC-TV studio when the two reviewed the 1971 bout and Ali started talking and Frazier took exception and the two men came to blow, not unlike professional wrestling scripted tactics. After all, Ali watched Gorgeous George and Freddie Blassie as a kid and liked their bad guy wrestling persona. Ali won the rematch at the Garden in 12 rounds.
The Thrilla in Manila was another brutal fight; Ali was the champion having disposed of Foreman in Zaire in 1974 and won a 14 round fight after Frazier’s trainer Eddie Futch threw in the towel. It was the final fight between Ali and Frazier and ended Frazier’s relationship with Futch. Frazier fought Foreman again in 1976 and lost. It was the end of the road for Frazier. Ali won a few more bouts and lost to Leon Spinks in February 1978. He regained a title, the WBA version, by beating Spinks in October of that year. He retired in June 1979 but attempted an ill-fated comeback against former sparring partner and now champions Larry Holmes in October 1980 and lost. Ali’s final fight was in 1981 against Trevor Berbick and ended in a loss.
Frazier attempted a brief comeback in 1981, fighting to a draw with Jumbo Cummings. The era was over; both Ali and Frazier were shadows of their former selves. Neither would fight again.
Evan Weiner is a radio-TV commentator, columnist, and lecturer on “The Business and Politics of Sports.” He can be reach at email@example.com