By Alan Hubbard
Some of the better things about growing old – and believe me there aren’t many these days – are the memories locked in the mind. High on my nostalgic list the many nights spent watching great fights all over the world, none more so than that of March 8, 1971 between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.
So I will certainly be pinching myself this Monday evening as a reminder that it really is exactly half a century to the day since I sat ringside at Madison Square Garden alongside such a literary legends as Norman Mailer and Budd Schulberg coving what is indelibly labelled The Fight of the Century. At least, last century that is..
Frank Sinatra was just in front of me, leaning on the ring apron and snapping away as a photographer for Life Magazine.
A few moments earlier we had been strangers in the night exchanging glances in the gents toilet. ‘Ole Blueb Eyes , complete with trilby,stood, in the next urinal, nodded and enquired: “How ya doing fella?”.
“Fine thanks, Mr Sinatra.” I gulped.
“Who d’ya fancy?” he enquired.
“Well… Ali,” I replied hesitantly.
“Nah, Frazier’ll destroy him,” came the snapped response.
End of conversation. We returned to join some 760 others in the vast press area,.
As an Ali aficionado I had been taken aback by Sinatra’s terse dismissal of his chances. But of course the old warbler was known to detest him over of his stand on Vietnam and also probably because Ali was the one figure even more globally famous than himself.
New York, New .For days the city not only never slept but had been alive with lick-lipping ;anticipation. Inside Madison Square Garden the atmosphere was so intense both before and during the fight that two spectators died of heart attacks.
The magnificence and magnitude of that fabulous night will go down as one of the momentous episodes in the annals of sport. A platoon of police were drafted to control the crowd. Eight of New York’s finest had been assigned to act as round-the-clock bodyguards for Ali, who had received numerous death threats from redneck factions.
The the whole world had been agog when it was announced that the two unbeaten heavyweight champions – Smokin’ Joe had picked up the title of which Ali was stripped and exiled from the ring for three years because of his refusal to fight in the Vietnam war – would receive the richest ever prize in sport: Two and a half million US dollars apiece at the mecca of boxing.
Only a handful of the principals at the Garden are still with us and I think my fellow octogenarian and friend Colin Hart of The Sun and myself are the only two surviving British journos of the dozen or so present still writing about boxing today.Colin’s recollections will be in his newspaper this weekend and mine are in full in this week’s Boxing News but we both agree
agree on just but just how humongous an occasion this was.
He says: “I doubt the fans of today can appreciate just how massive big this fight was and how big Ali and Frazier were. It really was global, even though there was no pay-per-view – just closed circuit TV. It was so huge that even the Soviet Union, where professional boxing was then banned, sent two reporters from the state news agency Tass.”
One of my favourite flashbacks involed of Madison Square Garden’s wonderfully laconic PR, the late John X F Condon.
We all liked Condon. He was an old school PR who took no, prisoners. At the post-fight press conference (which neither combatants attended as they were hospitalised – winner Frazier for six weeks) he spotted singer Diana Ross sitting in the front row of the packed media room.
“Who ya with, little lady?” he queried.
“I’m Diana Ross,” she trilled.
“I know who you are, little lady,” Condon retorted. “I said, who ya with? What media d’ya represent?”
“Well, none,” she said. “I’m just me, Diana Ross.”
“Sorry little lady,” said Condon. “Out. This is strictly my my working press only.”
And out The Supremes superstar had to trot.
Can you imagine a similar scene today, a PR daring to remove such celebrity fans of the stature of Shirley Bassey or Elton John from a press conference?.
Yes, it really was an epic encounter which transfixed the globe from Alaska to Zaire..
A platoon of police had been drafted in to control the crowds.. Eight of New York’s finest had been assigned to act as round-the-clock bodyguards for Ali, who had received numerous death threats from redneck factions.
It is history that seconds from the final bell of an enthralling contest Frazier, felled Ali with his trademark left hook which left Ali’s jaw grotesquely swollen. Thus Frazier famously won by unanimous decision the first of what was be the most dramatic trilogy in boxing history.
The report this rookie reporter telexed back to my London-based newspaper group (no mobiles or laptopa then) immediately after the fight, began: “A legend has been licked. The man who mesmerised the world with his mouthy magic is no longer The Greatest…”
Ali’s shock demise was front page news all over the world, The London Evening Standard simply headed the great, late, George Whiting’s report: “Ali-oops!”
The fight had itself exceeded even its promotional hype.
At the end of round 14, Frazier held a lead on the scorecards of ace referee Arthur Mercante and two ringside judges and even as a committed Ali-phile I could not disagree with Mercante’s final assessment of 8-6-1.
Those three-and-a-half years a leaden-legged Ali had spent in exile, with only two warm-up fights, finally caught up with him.
But Frazier, 205lb of smouldering resentment, had been ruthless in his pursuit of the revenge he had sought for the “Uncle Tom” bad-mouthing and ticket-selling taunting he had endured from Ali in the build-up. He was a worthy victor.
To be honest, in retrospect this was not truly the fight of the century. Ali v Frazier III, the Thrilla in Manila four years later (“the closest thing to dying,” Ali was to remark) was an even better ring spectacle, as had been Ali v Foreman rumbling in the African jungle as dawn came up like thunder.. And two Las Vegas epics involving Marvin Hagler, against Tommy Hearns and rhen Sugar Ray Leonard, ran thsm close.
Now we await what is already being touted as the fight of this century, two Brits, Tyson Fury against Anthony Joshua some time, somewhere, this summer. It is anticipated that each will trouser £100 millon. How times change.
But thanks for the memories…
(Alan Hubbard is a former sports editor of The Observer and award-winning columnist for the Independent on Sunday. He has been covering boxing for over 60 years).